Various people have opined in near desperation that we must defuse polarization in America. Two decades ago, the late Judge Robert Bork, who was rejected as a STOTUS nominee under President Reagan, wrote a tome entitled “Slouching Toward Gomorrah.” One of Bork’s chief grievances, was that every issue in America had been politicized. We only see this trend accelerating in the 20 years since the book was published.
It is the social institutions such as the media, entertainment industry and in some cases, theories espoused in the enterprise of higher education, that have instigated and inflamed the problem. It certainly won’t be these institutions that will be willing or able to defuse this phenomenon. It will be up to each individual, reaching out in their interpersonal relationship that will make a difference, if, at all, one can be made.
Social media platforms have succeeded in unleashing the lesser angels of human nature, because of the anonymity they provide I discovered this rather vividly quite by accident. My day job found me occasionally in the place of interacting with the same people who lambaste certain opinion pieces that I have written for a local venue. When I interface with these same people, unaware of my identity, they behave in a far more civil and polite manner.
It will be up to each one of us to avoid the knee-jerk repulsion over differing political issues. Here is something I wrote to another individual who insisted that people of a different ideological persuasion are not welcomed.
“I am someone who actually believes in celebrating diversity, particularly ideological diversity – not just brandishing slogans. I reach out to others who express different points of view, because I have respect for the validity of the unique and nuanced life experiences that brought each of us to our current perspectives. I have a conviction that certain social institutions have conditioned us to react certain pejorative ways toward people with differing opinions, and I've decided that if the polarization in society is going to be defused, it must start with me. I won't call myself open-minded only to be governed by stereotypes and preconceived notions. My epiphany was to consider that before I was married, I knew none of the political preferences of any of the women I had dated, including my wife. I think society was more civil when we focused on the character of the individual, rather than political labels. On that basis, I'm reaching out to you.”
Sometimes this will work and other times not. But it’s a Saul Alinski in reverse strategy. Request that your opponent actually live up to the implications of his/her own mantras. One can’t honestly be open-minded and yet be prejudiced regarding a political or ideological label without first coming to know your character. Look for common points of experience to which you can build bridges of communication. Once you build a mutual respect for each other, it will be far easier to discuss differences in a rational, even-tempered manner, rather than react vitriolically to stereotypes
In political circles, there is a bromide that conservatives think liberals are people with bad ideas, whereas liberals think conservatives are bad people with ideas. Prejudice toward political or ideological labels, is in principle, scarcely different. from racial or ethnic stereotypes of the past. It’s just not as easily recognizable, nor is it socially stigmatized. One thing you will quickly discover is that when you allow a person to tell their whole story, you will notice their positions seem to be justified on the basis on their experiences, good or bad.
Here’s a prime example. Someone recently told me that though they believed in God, they thought organized religion was mind control. The conclusion was based on a litany of bad experiences in a parochial education as a youth. Only a few weeks later, I visited a terminally ill co-worker who told me that his experience in a Lutheran Elementary school, was the most meaningful time of his life. The lesson is that none of us can assume our own experiences are normative, and thus, whoever disagrees is the outlier. An “us versus them” mentality. Or as one speaker put it “Hurrah for our team, your side stinks and needs deodorant.”
Don’t think for a minute that I’m getting soft in my convictions or changing my stripes. My approach is informed by the Christian admonition to live as peacefully as possible with all people, and that we are to be harmless as doves, yet wise as serpents it’s time we did less harm and showed greater wisdom in our dealings with people..© Robert Meyer
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