Bridging the Divide: Part Three


Bridging The Divide: Pt 3 - Some Suggestions

It’s always easier to identify and criticize a problem than it is to provide a solution. That has certainly been true with this series. The main reason for the delay in the second half of this series is that it’s much easier to identify and criticize the causes of the widening political, cultural, and fear gap between the “two sides” than it is to provide a solution for reversing the problem. While we discussed some points of agreement and common ground in the last post, we often can’t engage on these points because of the widening fear gap (and pressure to maintain political purity instead of being seen as a compromiser). In order to engage on points of agreement, we must first begin to normalize reaching across the divide. That will the focus of this present conversation.
I fully admit that what follows is a collection of imperfect principles for trying to reverse the widening divide. People wiser than I will need to come up with better solutions, but I think the below are some places to start the discussion.

Suggestion 1: Scale back amplifying the worst messages from the “other side.”

“First, do no harm.” is the basic principle of medicine. If we are to begin healing the divide in this country, we need to stop widening it. The internet’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness as well- it gives everyone a voice. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of (for lack of a more modern term) fools have voices.
Most people would acknowledge that there are fools in every political, cultural, and religious camp. Loud-mouthed, confident, ignorant, extreme and uncensored, these are the people that possess the intellectual nuance of a bulldozer and thrive on generalities and rage. They pitch such rage as a moral virtue and do their best to fire up their followers against the other side.
And yet, who helps proliferate their comments, posts, and videos? Those on the opposite side of the issue from the fool.

“Look at this moron!” they comment as they help spread the message of the person they find enraging. The implications are that:

  • A. this person is a fool (likely true),
  • B. this person represents most people on the other side of the issue (who are also fools by association), and
  • C. we should consequently fear/loath/ridicule the other side. Our friends like, comment, share, and laugh and we feel good about our place in our political tribe and feel our disdain for our opponents is validated.
“But,” you may claim, “some messages deserve to be spotlighted and ridiculed.”
“Besides, it’s not like you don’t share the occasional outrageously dumb tweet or article with your friends, Samuel!” (correctly pointing out my hypocrisy in this area.) And of course, you are right on both counts.
Yet there are lots of things in life that are good in controlled doses that become harmful in excess. Sugar, alcohol, pain killers – life would be less full and much more painful without these things. They are forces for good when used rightly. Yet overused, they can be addictive and damaging.
Nationally, we have become addicted to highlighting and mocking the worst of the other side while stoking our own outrage.
I’m not saying we should never do it, but I do think we should ask ourselves if at the current level of doing so is
  • A. helping or hurting,
  • B. widening or deepening the political divide, and
  • C. causing ourselves to think deeper or more shallowly. (Again, I do not claim sainthood in this area- quite the opposite, this is something I need to work on).
Or, if all else fails, at least remember that you have fools in your political camp too and have likely in moments of pitched emotion, said, done, or posted something pretty foolish yourself. That does not eliminate the validity of your ideals, nor should it for those on the other side of the political divide.

Suggestion 2: Assume the best instead of the worst about the intentions of your friend on the “other side”.

We tend to believe our own motives for believing something are logical, unbiased, benevolent, and true in the traditional sense of the word. Those who disagree with us are assumed to be base, self-serving, and stupid. Given humanity’s truly impressive power of self-deception, neither of these beliefs is likely as true as we think it is. If you don’t believe me, read ”Mistakes Were Made – But Not By Me” – by Tavris and Aronson for a good look at the power of cognitive dissonance (or virtually any classical/imperial era philosophy book by Stoic, Aristotelian, Platonic, or Christian thinkers).
One treats an evil person differently than a misguided person. Most people who aren’t in your political camp aren’t evil and don’t deserve to be treated as such. It’s likely that they are influenced by their cultural, friend group, and biased sources of information… just as you are.
This does not mean you should fail to oppose political initiatives you see as harmful. History is rife with chaos and harm done by misguided people with good intentions. But it should change your internal outlook toward those in the movements you disagree with.
Instead of bigots, baby killers, class traitors, and snowflakes, they are neighbors and countrymen, who have a lot of reasons why they believe the way they do. If we believe they have good intentions, instead of evil, we can listen, engage in meaningful dialogue, and still respect them when we disagree. We can’t do that if we simply write them off as evil.
This also forces us to allow for some nuance in those we may disagree with. It’s wrong to assume that everyone on “the other side” buys into the entire democratic or republican platform. Most people I’ve taken the time to listen to and discuss issues in turn have some varying level of nuance and variance in their beliefs. Just because your friend is pro-gun rights doesn’t mean he’s for privatized healthcare. Just because someone doesn’t support reparations doesn’t mean they deny that racial injustice exists. Just because someone opposes the war on drugs, doesn’t mean they support smoking weed recreationally. Be cautious of labels that allow us to categorize; and consequently, write off and dismiss people instead of engaging each person as the individuals that they are.
In short: try to start from the assumption that those on the “other side” have motives and a level of nuance at least as good as your perception of your own.

Suggestion 3: Commit more effort to serving than criticizing.

Few things are easier than sitting on your couch and criticizing people on the internet. Many of us have become veteran keyboard commandos after serving a 13-month tour in COVID lockdown. Our egos have grown solid from commenting on virtually all occurrences, foreign and domestic. Many a poor soul (and corresponding relationship) have fallen victim to our well-honed levels of outrage. We’re proudest of how, in large groups, we’ve been known to end the careers of entertainers, athletes, and public figures who have given their (admittedly likely unsolicited) opinions on various topics.
Here’s the strange thing though:

I’ve never met a person who’s changed their mind on a topic after witnessing a well-orchestrated keyboard commando assault. I’ve never seen a twitter rant stock a food shelf, make a neighborhood safer, or clean up a park.

Talk is cheap. Posting is common. Sharing content is easy. We deserve the dismal results we get for such shirking of our responsibility to our country and our local community.
We need to have the courage to dedicate time and energy to serve our local communities in some small way. We can effect far more change volunteering once a month to help out a local food shelf then by a dozen internet flame wars. Worried about what’s being taught in your local schools? Join the PTA or run for the school board. Wish police didn’t have to respond to non-emergency calls? Volunteer for the police reserves. Tired of people leaving trash at the local park? Pick-up a bag and start cleaning.
Better yet– invite a friend to do it with you – maybe even someone who you disagree with politically (if you still have those friends).
We’ve begun to lose our national ethic of service – we think it’s something for our military or teachers or firefighters, and we wonder why the “other side” is so selfish in their politics. It’s difficult to hate someone when you are voluntarily serving them. It’s incredibly hard to loath them when you’re working to make something better together.
You’re not going to save the world by whatever act of local service you choose to do, but you certainly will do more good then as a COVID-deployed keyboard commando. If we’re diligent and enough of us do some small positive actions, we might start healing our self-wounded country. One thing is for certain though, unless we start changing ourselves, we have no hope of changing anything.
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