Never in my six decades have I been witness to such great divide between people of various socio-political stripes. Even the Vietnam war, with its protests and the slogans spouted by the young about not trusting anyone over 30 and the older set not trusting long-haired hippies, didn’t tear relationships asunder as is the case now.
Stanford Law School professor Mugambi Jouet is the author of the provocative book Exceptional America: What Divides Americans from the World and from Each Other. In it, he explores the polarities that exist in this country like nowhere else on the planet.
“What’s intriguing,” he says, “is that American society is extraordinarily polarized today by both U.S. historical standards and international standards. Leaving aside a few other periods like the Civil War, for example, there are not many phases of American history where we see such a big clash over fundamental issues. Americans are routinely clashing over matters that are either not controversial or much less controversial elsewhere in the modern Western world, such as whether people should have basic rights to health care, whether special interests should be allowed to spend unlimited money on elections and lobbying, whether climate change is a hoax, a myth or scientific reality. The list goes on and on, from abortion to contraception, gay rights, gun control, theory of evolution, the death penalty, mass incarceration, even torture.”
It has become such a gut wrenchingly difficult issue for this tree hugging liberal, whose parents encouraged her to speak her mind, stand up for the underdog and be a force for good in the world. In my circles, most people share similar world-view, and some have joined in the various marches and vigils held in this shifting of rocky political ground. Many write copious amounts on social media about their distress over how things are unraveling.
There are others I know whose perspectives are a few inches apart from my own and some miles away. I have attempted to understand what shaped their values and actions. Not sure they have done the same. I acknowledge that everyone has the right to their opinion, since as my father would say, “It’s a free country.” Even so, I find it challenging to my egalitarian sensibilities.
As an active social media user, I am bombarded daily with messages that endorse the polar opposite of what I espouse. Sometimes I can shrug it off, considering the source. There are other times when I attempt to use logic, as well as my experience as a clinician who treats people whose mental health has been severely impacted by the actions taken by this administration. I too feel deep concern about the cognitive and emotional status of the occupant of the Oval Office. My expressions are sometimes dismissed as liberal lambasting and ‘fake news’ in an attempt to criticize their presidential choice.
Today I unfriended a family member over her intensely right-wing views that make me cringe. We had a brief series of interactions on line as she did her ‘what about?’ deflection when asked about what is happening in the nation’s capital that ripples out worldwide. She is an earnest cheerleader for the current administration, using jargon and slogans to rally support. What saddens me is how far she has departed from what I remember as a more open-minded upbringing.
The idea of confirmation bias and the echo chamber factor may play a role here. They describe a state of mind in which our beliefs are validated in the news pieces we choose to use as validation. It is also known as, “pockets of political polarization.” I admit that I would much rather read articles about which I can cheer rather than boo, those that have me feeling nourished and not force fed verbal junk food.
Her choices of reading, listening and viewing material do indeed reinforce her adamant beliefs. When I announced my reluctant decision, my friends rallied around, supporting me in preventing myself from absorbing the negativity I could feel when seeing her posts in my thread. They too have felt a need to disconnect from certain family and friends as they went head to head over differences in opinion.
As I sit in my liberal cocoon, I imagine what it is like in the other camp. They too feel validated by their own values and see mine as threatening their sense of security. Regardless of which side of the aisle we sit, we all breathe air, drink water, have the right to safety, freedom from hate rhetoric, body sovereignty, loving who we choose, freedom of speech, freedom of the press. This administration has made it clear that those are not important to them.
Seems I am in good company as a study funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, indicates that liberals are more likely to unfriend conservatives rather than vice versa. When I do attempt to share my take on things, I am careful not to name call and cast aspersions. I don’t succumb to even the most fleeting inclination to use disparaging comments about the physical appearance of anyone in the administration. I avoid polarizing epithets. Instead, I describe direct statements made and the responses offered, as well as the impact on the state of the world by same.
In the same way, I did that very thing with the family member, responding to the dissemination of information she highlighted on her Facebook page. Now I need not do that with her. We don’t live near each other and are not likely to meet again in this lifetime. I can unfriend without demonizing her or anyone else who sees the world through the same lens. I am open to good conversation on nearly any topic. This feels like more than agreeing to disagree. Too much is at stake.