The US election results (or lack thereof) have been the shock heard round the world, and it isn’t just the protests, pre-mature claims of victory, and accusations of fraud that have people unsettled — it’s the closeness of the race. A landslide win was projected for Biden by many, but the narrow margins by which states are being won and lost make clear just how divided the nation truly is. We are being forced to face the question that has been murmured reluctantly in the shadows for a few years now: is America on the precipice of a civil war?
While I believe that the vast majority of Americans would say they were opposed to civil war, we also seem alarmingly opposed to compromise and building bridges. The notion of finding common ground and treating with respect and civility those with whom you disagree seems to have become the mark of the immoral. The public lashed out viciously at Ellen DeGeneres last summer after she was seen laughing and having polite conversation with former Republican President George Bush. Some public figures removed their names from a letter promoting freedom of speech, citing not that they had changed their position on free speech, but that they would not have signed the letter had they known who else was signing it.
We have shifted into a dichotomic realm wherein any single belief, statement, action or connection taints and then defines you, and to work toward understanding or reconciliation with someone who is tainted is to make a deal with the devil. However, as we look at the deep divide through America, our choice is becoming undeniably clear — find common ground, or prepare for war.
How can a nation so polarized, so hurt, and so angry come together again? I believe we must start with a desire to do so. If we let it sink in that the alternative to reconciliation is the end of our nation, perhaps we can approach one another with a more genuine investment in finding a way to work together.
We can make the idea of working with our so-called “enemies” more palatable if we are willing to accept that we may be applying the labels of “enemy,” “evil,” “idiot” and so many others too liberally, and that this is ultimately unhelpful. In her Ted Talk entitled “On Being Wrong,” Kathryn Schultz says this about how we explain away people who disagree with us:
“The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is we just assume they’re ignorant. They don’t have access to the same information that we do, and when we generously share that information with them, they’re going to see the light and come on over to our team. (The Ignorance Assumption)
“When that doesn’t work, when it turns out those people have all the same facts that we do and they still disagree with us, then we move on to a second assumption, which is that they’re idiots. They have all the right pieces of the puzzle, and they are too moronic to put them together correctly. (The Idiocy Assumption)
“And when that doesn’t work, when it turns out that people who disagree with us have all the same facts we do and are actually pretty smart, then we move on to a third assumption: they know the truth, and they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes.” (The Evil Assumption)
She goes on to say that, “This attachment to our own rightness… causes us to treat each other terribly.”
The assumptions we make about people who disagree with us lead to the unhelpful labeling I mentioned above, which, in turn, further contributes to the problem. In one of his lectures in Building Great Sentences from The Great Courses, Professor Brooks Landon suggests that we have begun to allow our words to do our thinking for us, as opposed to using our words as tools to express our thoughts. We unconsciously outsource our language, and therefore thinking, to what he calls “prefabricated” and “phatic” phrases used by the media and politicians.
An example of this phenomenon would be the comments section below a political satire video I watched where a great many comments stated simply that the video was “intellectual laziness.” The irony, of course, was that none of the commenters bothered to justify the accusation of intellectual laziness, and felt the mere application of the label was sufficient to prove their point. Thus the cycle occurred:
1. Someone who disagreed with them mocked their values in a video, which led to an automatic assumption on their part that the mocker was ignorant. They felt no need to question this assumption.
2. The prefab label of “intellectually lazy” sprang to mind, a label that felt appropriate to their feelings about the video and the ignorant poster. They could apply the label easily based on the initial feeling of offense without having to examine their own thoughts closely and articulate what they, personally, found wrong with the video.
3. Once the assumption was solidified with a broadly understood and accepted label, the label was applied, and there was no need for further discussion or examination. In fact to engage further with someone who is ignorant and lazy would be foolish on the part of the commenter.
4. The instance of identifying and labeling someone who disagreed with them as ignorant and lazy confirmed in their own mind the truth of the belief, further solidifying their belief in their own rightness and the other party’s wrongness.
The fatal flaw in the cycle of logic above is that the labels applied to the mocker have been applied by the commenter themselves, to justify their own negative reaction to the material, but are not necessarily a reflection of any objective reality. In order to have productive conversations that will steer us toward mutual understanding, we must step out of these self-affirming loops driven by assumptions and labels and embrace the truth that there are things about the people we disagree with that we don’t yet see or understand. At a book signing I once attended, the author of the book described learning in journalism school to “embrace your ignorance,” as it’s the first and most important step toward learning.
Once we have embraced our ignorance and stripped away the labels and assumptions surrounding our differences, we are finally able to look upon each other with fresh eyes. When I look at our country with fresh eyes, eyes ready to see where our common ground lies, I see common motivators on both sides. I see fear as a common motivator all around, something that is understandable in times such as these, but this is not a healthy commonality to rally around. And so I look again and I see another common theme on all sides: outrage with corruption.
Donald Trump successfully ran on the campaign slogans “Make America Great Again” and “Drain the Swamp” in the 2016 presidential race. With no political experience or polish, he won the White House by appealing to the growing sense of frustration among Americans with corruption in government, a government which they felt did not see, hear, or care about them.
The #MeToo movement grew as women across America and the world began to feel empowered to make their voices heard, shedding light on corrupt cultures that deny and dismiss sexual misconduct by men, while enforcing consequences on women who don’t comply with the culture.
#BlackLivesMatter is similarly built on fighting corruption, as it causes us to examine the way that race effects the actions of police and the consequences of those actions, calling for a more just and fair system that values the lives of all citizens equally.
America was meant to be a bottom-up power structure, but it seems that behind almost every modern movement is outcry against the ever growing top-down power structures that allow the few at the top to call the shots and get away with almost anything, while those below remain unseen and unheard. When I look at America, a nation divided against itself, deep in the political trenches, I see a nation of people ironically fighting for the same cause — justice. I see a common desire to root out corruption, to make sure that every voice is heard and every life counts, to create new standards that are fairer for all and that serve and protect the people. The ideas of what that looks like and how to get there vary widely, but the root desire for justice is the same, and that’s what we should cling to.
Is it possible that we’ve been manipulated by the powers that be, by the ones that benefit from a country that serves those at the top at the expense of those at the bottom? By the ones that stand to lose money or power if we were to unite in our quest for justice? Perhaps. Just imagine the power we would have to change systems, corporate cultures, Washington, all of it, if we found a way to do it together. Imagine what would happen if we were able to find common ground and a common goal. Imagine what we would look like as a united front. Just imagine. Now, where will you find common ground?