Shaming and blaming are draining. They only gain us wider divides.
Pretend we could put politics aside. (I know, just stay with me here.) Is it possible that Americans agree on anything?
I think so. Even in a country that agrees we are living in an era of extreme political polarization, so extreme that the political has become personal. So extreme that more people are displeased by the thought that their child would marry someone of a different political party than of a different religion.
Some research suggests that it’s not the political polarization as much as our squabbling.
It might just be that most people really don’t like politics. Americans are open to people with all sorts of political and partisan opinions, our research shows — as long as they keep those opinions to themselves. — Klar, Krupnikov & Ryan, (2019), NYT Opinion
As usual, there’s more to the (research) story. The pollsters added questions about frequency and impact on social gatherings: How often a new son/daughter-in-law whose politics were a sharp left or right of theirs talked about politics.
If their future in-law would rarely discuss politics, fewer than 30 percent said that they would be unhappy with an in-law from the opposing party. If, on the other hand, the hypothetical in-law would never shut up about politics — they would interrupt social gatherings and holidays with the latest dirt from MSNBC or from Fox — more than 40 percent of people would be unhappy with the marriage.
This is especially true for almost two-thirds of Americans who do not strongly identify with a party.
Among this majority,
fewer than 20 percent said they would be unhappy with an in-law from the opposing party who rarely discussed politics. When, instead, their child’s chosen partner was a talkative member of the opposing party, this number doubled to 40 percent.
If there’s one thing that has opened the floodgates for knowing how everyone feels, it’s the constant informational noise we are all bombarded with and so conveniently use to bombard others. Most of what’s covered under this noisy umbrella are opinions and marketing that shout
Click this. We will tell and sell you everything you need.
Because technology won’t abate anytime soon, the most probable future is one in which we learn the adverse biological and social effects of exposure to our constant bombardment. What can we do right now?
- Stop assuming. See those Bernie stickers on the car ahead of you? The Trump sign in the yard? If the person in that car or walking out of that house is the person who put those signs there (an assumption), they are not necessarily against you or even against most of what you believe.
Also, don’t assume they are less intelligent than you. Mere exposure to different ideas, information, people and places are some reasons for our differences. But having more experiences doesn’t equal more wisdom. I’ve begun to ask myself: Is it possible that my experiences made me a better person in some respects but a less tolerant or empathic person in others?
Relatedly, never underestimate nature. Our individual wiring. We give free will too much credit. In Behave, Robert Sapolsky shines a spotlight on just how influential biology is: Decisions, whether bad or good, are made thanks to biological events in our body. Many are becoming explainable and even predictable.
2. Stop stereotyping. I have some smart friends on social media who paint with a brush so wide that I frequently wonder: are they hurting more than they’re helping?
Entire generations, races, or genders are not responsible for the political, social and economic injustices that have led us here. While we need to be clear about specific role accountability (office holders) and which groups disproportionally benefit/lose based on the status quo, we can’t hold entire identity groups accountable (e.g., #okboomer). Shaming or blaming people over 55 or all white people or immigrants or Muslims is not just inaccurate, it creates more divisions — even within the same political party.
3. VOTE. Don’t just post and talk about candidates. Also, help push for election processes that guarantee equal access to polls, an end to gerrymandering, and to ensure every vote actually counts.
4. Put up boundaries. Just like time-boxing work or projects, limit social media and other media consumption. Go outside, say hello to your neighbor. Get out of your head and the dread you may feel. Write a letter to the editor, sign up for Better Angels, volunteer to help with campaigns, blog or write for Medium.
5. Focus on what, not who, you can change. It’s a good idea to read the room. Especially when that room includes family and friends whom you know to believe differently than you. Telling someone they’re wrong, even indirectly, only makes the teller feel more righteous.
Don’t stop being you. Don’t hide what you are doing or lie about what you believe. But don’t convince yourself that “taking a stand” at social gatherings is heroic. It’s usually tedious at best and contentious at worse.
6. Take a nap. Literally and figuratively. None of us makes good choices when we are tired or stressed. We can also learn to pause before responding in kind to someone’s inflammatory post, or even when we’re face-to-face with someone who’s looking for a fight. One of my favorite responses ends with a question:
It sounds like you already have a firm opinion. Are you open to a conversation about it?
We may be experiencing the greatest American political divide since the Civil War. Doing these six things won’t prevent war, but we may influence others to re-think their interactions with us and with others.
Maybe we’ll end up spreading some civility where it counts the most. At the very least, being less angry and less anxious seems worth the change.