It’s been a week into our new presidency, and suffice it to say that we very well may be more divided now than we were during election time. Our feeds are inundated with new orders and mandates, resistance movements multiply each day, and the chasm between conservative and liberal has never quite seemed so wide.
As an English major, former teacher, and voracious reader, I’ve made it my duty to read as much as I can from perspectives across the spectrum. I’ve engaged in real dialogue with those whose ideas differ from my own. While I watch in horror at what is becoming of our country, I’m trying desperately to understand what has lead us to this point and how we can start bridging the divide rather than wait around for our leaders to save us. That clearly isn’t going to happen on either side.
My narrative the whole time has been that we are more alike than we are different. You how I know that? I watch my children. My son is seven, and my daughter is four; they see no differences among their friends, except that some friends have food allergies and others don’t. My son attends a diverse elementary school here in Middle Tennessee, and I’m thankful that he has the opportunity to learn and grow among others from different walks of life who look differently and learn differently than he does. Yet, he doesn’t see those things; he announced his first “girlfriend” this year – a stunning, kind, and smart African-American girl aptly named Harmony. He’s cognizant of skin color and the struggles that his friends with brown skin (his words) have endured to achieve equality, but the basis of his friendships doesn’t rest upon those things – it’s on their shared affinity for Pokemon cards, board games, Minecraft, and inventing games on the playground.
Where does it all go wrong? Watching my kids and their friends play looks vastly different from watching my friends interact on social media. Rather than embrace our differences and find common ground, we demonize each other – people we’ve known for ages, our childhood friends, our colleagues, even our family. We unfriend, unfollow, and troll their posts looking for a fight so we can be “right.” What if there isn’t a right or wrong? What if all of our concerns were considered valid and we actually engaged in not just listening to the other side’s point of view, but we actually made attempts to know them as people and not their labels?
I attempted to do just that earlier this week. I shared a post, and several friends from very different times in my life hotly debated the topic. Finally, I stepped in and introduced them all and how I knew each of them, diffusing the tension. A similar instance happened later in the week; a former student I haven’t really spoken to in nearly ten years messaged me (after trolling my comments) genuinely interested in my opinion about the DeVos nomination and school vouchers/charters. Upon first glance, he and I have completely different stances as it relates to this topic which was quickly made evident. However, the longer we talked, the more we realized we actually had several common beliefs and goals pertaining to education; we just differed on the methods with which those goals should be achieved. It was eye-opening and educating to me to hear from the other side, and I think both of us walked away maybe not with completely changed minds, but at the very least, an appreciation for the other side’s perspective.
In times like these, we cannot exist in an echo chamber of our own ideas, nor can we constantly wage an ideological war with others. That’s what polarization is: the notion that if you can pit two sides to opposite extremes, you can control the middle narrative. We, as Americans, are better than that. We have to be. We are allowing the very fabric of our country to be torn apart by politicians, media bias, our own admitted and subconscious prejudices, and ultimately our pride in believing that we are the only ones who are right.
I used to teach argument and logical fallacies to my juniors, which has never been more applicable learning than right now. I tried to explain to them tactics like bandwagon, ad hominem, straw man, and either/or; I showed them the faulty logic in those hollowed arguments, and yet, we are guilty of making those same errors each day. It can’t be either you are a baby killer or a baby saver. It can’t be either you are a liberal or a racist. By dismissing the complexity of not just American citizens, but human beings, we reduce our ability to listen, understand, and empathize with those different from us.
I grew up in a staunchly conservative environment at a private Christian school where those who deviated from the norm were ridiculed and shunned. I didn’t feel, and still don’t feel, that the God I found in the eighth grade endorses that kind of division. I joined Campus Crusade in college, and though I made life-long friends, I also encountered a similar ideology that shook its finger at struggles that didn’t align with a specific theology. It’s taken me years to identify God’s voice within myself, to untangle it from years of others’ theology and dogma. Ultimately, it has been studying the life of Jesus and his parables that guides my own faith and world view. The parables of the Samaritan, and the Prodigal Son both emphasize compassion and generosity with the “other” – not the one who looks and acts like the religious of that time but rather the one who is considered the scum of society. I look with whom Jesus kept his closest company – a prostitute, a tax collector, lepers. I look at what enraged him – religious leaders and politicians profiting from a house of worship. It’s through that lens that I have to continually revisit my own perspective of those who believe differently from myself to see that we are really quite similar.
I’m scared right now, honestly. As much fear as I have in our current leadership (on both sides of the aisle), I’m even more fearful that they won’t be our undoing. We, ourselves, will. By allowing ourselves to be divided and refusing to sit down, learn about others, and compromise, we will hand those in power a divided and easily manipulated country on a silver platter. We will tear ourselves apart, and then others with ill intent have the opportunity to pick up the pieces and rearrange them however they see fit.
A revolution is happening in our country right now, whether we like it or not. But we can still choose how it will happen and how it will look. We can choose to band together, to let go of past grievances, to listen and learn to others, and to build a vision for our country that we, the people, actually want. That’s the beauty of Democracy – we’ve just been letting others, serving their own interests, do it for us for far too long. Like it or not, we’re all in this together, and it’s not too late to save this experiment in democracy. We just have to be willing to stretch ourselves, do hard work, and choose love over fear. Choose freedom over security. Choose openness over isolation. Choose humanity rather than party.
In the words of the great poet, Langston Hughes:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain —
All, all the stretch of these great green states —
And make America again!
From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes.