I’m not going to lie. Every time I tune into any type of media these days, the world immediately looks mangled and dark. This new era in politics is unknown; between the Bannons and the DeVoses, disruption is about the only thing we can safely predict. But what I want to focus on here is that we, as Americans with opposing political views, cannot seem to have a worthwhile conversation about any of it. The emotions that any political talk seems to tap are, simply, combustible. The increase of available information, some of it valid and some of it not, and some of it relevant and constructive, some of it not, means that everyone’s sources of information are feeding them competing and contrary narratives. So let me ask a question: To what end?
This is America. We are diverse and we have always had “robust” national discourse about the best path for our country to move forward and prosper. But this is not national discourse. This is all-out madness. This is painting each other as demons or idiots. Most of us are not, so can we try to remember that the people we called fellow citizens a few months ago are still the well-intentioned people they were back then? (I say “most,” because, certainly, there are people who, in the pursuit of less-than-noble goals, cause harm, and we’re not all geniuses–or necessarily the best informed. But it’s not naive to say that most of us mean well.)
Need I spell out the obvious result of this madness? We all become entrenched in our opinions and vilify the other side even further. (My deepest respect for the few who are open to changing their views when presented with convincing arguments or facts.) Our government then reflects this entrenchment and refuses to work across the aisle to move our country forward. (Wait–our government’s already there. Is it possible for the malfunction to get worse?) The point is, if we continue down this path, we all lose.
Trump’s candidacy and election have emboldened the worst in America. (And in recent days, it is emboldening the best, but it is only beginning, and yet to be determined.) We see the worst not only because his election emboldened or forced extremist individuals and groups to come out of the shadows (more on that in a moment), but even more because his election, and the candidacy preceding it, have turned civil discourse into a screaming match. Half the country’s angry. Half the country’s scared. The other half is defensive. And angry. And we’re all shouting to have our opinions heard. That’s not all Trump’s fault. There were all the -isms (racism, sexism, etc.) before. There was opinion-sold-as-fact and oversimplified or misrepresenting memes before Trump came along. But he has managed to harness it to his great advantage, and we are all paying the price.
So can we not? Can we just not? Yes, the stakes are high. People are suffering real harm–most recently in the area of immigration–and will likely continue to in other areas (ACA repeal crisis, here we come). Not to mention the people who have been mocked, beaten, or otherwise suffered at the hands of emboldened extremism since November 9. But these dark forces are not what I want to focus on, because I am clinging to a faith that our laws will not take away basic protections of safety, and that police, judicial, and civil forces will continue to uphold our laws. This does not mean that peoples’ lives won’t be affected, or that our most vulnerable members won’t be attacked and hurt before law enforcement can act (which is why, by the way, so many people are genuinely and justifiably frightened for themselves and their loved ones), but it does mean that we have not lost our democracy. Yet.
If, however, we continue to allow this constant vilification of each other, then the fight is only going to get uglier. Our government will be less stable and less able to execute legislation, and our civic life will become more inflammatory. Worse yet, in the name of keeping society from all-out chaos, this government will restrict our freedoms so much that we will lose our democracy. Yes, it is possible.
In an ideal world, we would all agree on some rules of engagement. Here’s what my rules would look like:
•No ad hominem attacks: the amount of mockery, and painting people with a broad brush, is crazy. Learn to criticize someone’s ideas without criticizing who they are. Same goes with groups. I hate seeing posts about how those liberals or republicans are such hypocrites because ____. Just stop with the name-calling, m-kay? It serves no purpose.
•Use a common language. A basic premise to any fruitful conversation is to speak the same language. Because we tend to get silo-ed in our communities, I suspect half of us are using terms that are foreign to or misunderstood by listeners. I’ve learned, for example, that not everyone knows what “racism” or “hate speech” mean. Clarify when necessary.
•Take the time to fact check. As you’re talking. And if you’re not sure of something, pause and, as my old friend likes to say, consult the oracle (your phone). It’s ok. We can’t all have all the facts we’ve read readily available in our mental Roladex®. And if it turns out you were wrong, admit it. Or at least go home and read up on the subject. Don’t dig your heels in.
•What would you add to this list?
Everything is not alright. But using our words as swords instead of building blocks is not going to make it better.