Bridging The Divide: Pt 2 Fear and Loathing
Fear is a blinding emotion. It distorts reality. It separates us from others and binds us in a prison of the mind. Unfortunately, as I have listened to my outspoken friends on both sides of the political divide explain their concerns to me, one theme has been repeatedly made clear. They are afraid of the other people on the other side of the aisle.
They are convinced that most people on the other side of the aisle are either ignorant or evil. To many, the voices on the other side of the political divide represent, not just a political disagreement, but a threat to their identity and way of life. More than this, they believe that most people on the “other side” are not just mistaken, but evil.
“The thing about Trump his supporters is that with them, the cruelty is the point of the policies,” a friend on the left told me when I remarked I was working on a series of posts on common ground. Upon hearing about my endeavor, a conservative friend said the same thing in fewer words about Democrats: “those people are evil.”
To support these claims, I was given by both sides a collection of screen shots, videos, and links demonstrating the vileness of the respective side. Calls for violence, suppression of opinion, racism, election fraud, religious discrimination, religious extremism – you name it. Both camps have what they considered more than adequate proof to show me that the other camp was from deeper in hell then Lucifer himself.
Not only are the vocal elements of the left and right convinced that the other side is either hopelessly ignorant or irredeemably evil, both are also convinced that mainstream culture has been hijacked by the other side. My friends on the right inform me that we are careening toward a left-wing police state that would make the government in 1984 look centrist. My friends on the left tell me that the Overton window has shifted so far right that the culture of Nazi Germany would be a step back toward the left.
It would be easy to write my friends off as extremists, but none of the ones that I’m reference above are on the violent fringe. Vocal, certainly, but they are also intelligent and kind people who I am glad to have in my life.
Though I don’t have a degree in political science, I’m certain that neither I nor those reading this need a doctorate to see the problem here. Nor do we need a background in history to spot the danger in having two large portions of the nation’s population see the other as a threat to their way of life.
Here’s where the strange thing – when you talk to the people on both sides, the gap is a lot narrower than those links, screenshots, and videos of inflammatory rhetoric would have us believe. Most my friends on both sides want to preserve the bill of rights. Most people want individual liberty and impartial justice for all. Most people want society to offer a hand-up but not a handout (as my grampa, a lifelong democrat who never accepted government aid despite living below the poverty line, would often say). Most people want behavior that hurts the people around them to be punished.
I could be accused of painting with a bit of a broad brush here. After all, everyone wants to live in peace, freedom, and prosperity, we just disagree on the best way to do that.
But I contend that even when you get more specific, there is more agreement then the vocal elements of the right and left would have us believe. Overlooking the most extreme voices, we can find general agreement on a wide range of specific issues. For instance, most people think that our current healthcare system is flawed (though there is certainly disagreement as to how to fix it). Most people think the tax code is complex and unfair. Most people think well-meaning immigrants should be allowed to try their hand at this land of opportunity. Most people think you should be able to worship (or not worship) how you want without interference from others. Most people think free speech is a good thing, abusive speech is wrong, and offensive speech should be neither illegal or encouraged. Most people are concerned about the growing power and corruption of government and big business. Most people are worried about how we’ve simultaneously lost our rights to privacy and our sense of patriotism/community (the words are different depending on the side of the aisle you’re on, but when you ask for a definition, you’ll find that people mean roughly the same thing by the two words). Most people are afraid of the growing political unrest and the physical and virtual mobs that exist on both sides. Most people think that racism is despicable, and our justice system should be impartial (they also believe that it sometime isn’t as just as it should be, the point of disagreement is simply over how often it fails vs succeeds in delivering impartial justice). Most people think that elections should be fair, transparent, and accessible to all citizens, and are convinced that there are alarming amounts of cheating (or voter fraud/ suppression) currently occurring.
This is not a comprehensive list, but one gets the idea that the divide isn’t quite as deep as many would have us believe. If we believe all these things, why then do we fear and hate the other side so much? Why do we decide to focus our energy on highlighting where we disagree and assuming the worst of the others motives?
Because it is in the best interest of the two political parties for us to loath and fear the people on the other side. Fear and anger drive donations, votes, and “grassroots” movements. “ They also drive us to support candidates that are, shall we say, less than ideal. One could argue that Joe Biden and Donald Trump were two of the least loved political candidates in recent history, yet they respectively generated the most and second most votes of any presidential candidates in the history of the country. Why? How?
Fear of the other side.
But it’s not just in the best interests of the political parties to keep the two sides terrified by each other.
Media companies (not just CNN and FOX news, but social media, radio, podcasts, and more) are funded by advertising. Advertising requires views and with so many forms of entertainment clamoring for our attention, media companies in general are increasingly desperate to garner views. Consequently, some companies resort to inflammatory headlines, highlight enraging twitter posts, and focus on controversy and friction to bring in more advertising dollars.
It’s not a secret in the media business that drama drives viewers/readers (if it bleeds, it leads as the old industry adage goes). It’s easy to blame social media, CNN, conservative radio, the Atlantic, and the Blaze for this, but at the end of the day, they wouldn’t use the tactics if people didn’t buy into them. We are just as responsible for wanting to be shown the worst of the other side as they are for constantly highlighting it.
Certainly, there are areas where the two sides disagree. Without question, there is also enraging, disturbing, and evil acts and players on both sides. I’m not claiming we should cover those things up or simply meet in the middle on every issue. But just because I cannot see eye to eye with someone about (for instance) climate change does not mean I should focus all my energies on underlying that disagreement. Instead of defaming their character and posting weekly (or multiple times daily) about how there are crazy extremists on their side (as if there are not on my side) and how ignorant everyone who denies (or affirms) climate change is, perhaps I could work to build relationships find issues we find consensus on see if we could make some progress toward making this nation a better place in those areas.
What I am saying is that there are many, many points of agreement that we can use to bridge the divide between the two camps and work together to solve problems if we so choose. That choice to work together instead of hate, to cooperate instead of fear, is up to us and the future of our nation depends on which path we choose.
So how to do break out of this dilemma? How do we remind ourselves that what unites us is certainly greater than what divides us? We’ll look at some possible ways to do that in our next and final exploration of this issue.