Jun 25, 2017

The Divide: Myths

I've been thinking a lot about the polarized atmosphere here in America in recent years.  Over a couple of blogs I'd like to explore the national Divide and how it might be possible to bridge that gap, even if closing it is not possible (and maybe not even desirable).  The first step is to dismantle some myths about our divided nation and how we relate to those who disagree with us.

Myth 1: We've never been more divided.  While it sure feels like the political climate has never been more poisonous, I would submit that it has in fact been much, much worse.  I think we  can definitively  say that the most divided we've ever been as a nation is when a chunk of the country just took off on their own and said we're not even gonna be a part of the United States anymore; so unacceptable are the policy proposals of our opponents.  It doesn't get more divided  than officially going to physical war with your political opponents. In fact, I think some circumstances may have changed but by and large I'm not convinced that a idyllic time of national togetherness ever existed. We may be somewhat more divided now than we were during say World War II, but overall I'm not sure this level of discord is as unusual as we think.

We haven't quite reached this point yet (and this was four years before the Civil War broke out).  I understand we had a shooting that appears to be politically motivated a few weeks back but the difference is that everyone on both sides of the aisle agreed that was horrible.  When Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner senseless on the floor of the U.S. Senate he was hailed as a hero by his mainstream supporters.

Myth 2: If you have bad ideas, you're a bad person. If you  have good ideas, you're good person. We generally try to separate someone's politics from their character, even if we disagree strenuously, but as the divide deepens it's tempting to buy into this myth: Something must be wrong with you.   This is especially true when it comes to racism where it's an article of faith among both black and white that only bad people are racists.  No wonder most people will avoid being called the "r" word at all costs.  No one wants to think of themselves as a bad person.  In my view, the truth is it  is possible for someone to be a "good person" and yet support, bad or even evil ideas.  Of course, we've all heard the quote which articulates this reality; "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." This is important because I talk to people, especially anti-Trumpers that are about ready to write off all Trump supporters as inherently deficient in some way.  "How can any decent person support this man?" they say.  And here's the thing I happen to know a few quite decent people who do ardently support the president.

When Harper Lee's "sequel" to To Kill a Mockingbird published people were horrified to discover that this paragon of virtue, was actually. . .well, kind of a racist. How could that be?  Personally, I didn't find it so implausible that the same man who defended Tom Robinson against the racist rabble could himself turn out to be a racist.  People are complicated like that.  This article from The Atlantic earlier this year articulates what I'm getting at in more depth.

Myth 3: We can change peoples minds by insulting them.  I'm skeptical as to how much we can change each other's minds. Most of us are heavily emotionally invested in our point of view and will have a hard time seeing anything other than that which confirms what we already believe.  But if there's any hope at all, I believe they only way forward is through seeking first to understand how our opponents see the world.  It's true that understanding your opponents perspective may not lead them to switch to our side, but insulting their intelligence, sneering at them, condescending  to them definitely won't help.  The unfortunate truth is that many times, we aren't seriously trying to change anyone's mind.  We are simply reveling in our own "rightness."  And in today's political climate, that self-congratulatory impulse is a luxury we can't afford.

Two masters of Myth # 3, one from the right and left.  But let's be honest.  These guys (and those of us like them) are ace Choir Preachers.  They have no sincere interest in dialogue, changing minds, or bridging any kind of divide.  Their job is to massage like-minded viewers.  The fact that they masquerade as hard-nosed truth tellers is all the more reprehensible. Ironically these guys don't actually "challenge" anyone's thinking.  I avoid them both.

Up Next: Complicating Factors that make bridging the divide more difficult.

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