“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
My least favorite meme from the campaign season is this: “the American people are fed up with the way Washington works”.
While it’s an idea that everyone seems to rally around, it’s doesn’t seem quite accurate to me.
Americans may believe that Congress is dysfunctional, but they also believe that their particular representative is doing a good job.
The logical conclusion is that it’s the “other” members of Congress, or mores specifically, the others side, that is messing things up.
“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?”
Charles De Gaulle.
America has a lot of cheese, if by cheese you mean people and interest groups, also known as the “other”. All this cheese has different concerns based on unique cultural, regional, religious, and economic considerations. This has been true since the colonial days when we were still under the British rule. The reality of organized interest groups influencing governmental legislation and the rights of the common man was one that every colony had to confront.
In his attempt to persuade the colonies to ratify the US Constitution, James Madison confronted the issue head on. Madison argued in Federalist Number 10 that these interest groups, which he called factions, were a natural part of the human experience and thus unavoidable. He claimed, however, that a representative government was the best way to guard against any one faction from gaining too much power and forcing their ideas upon the rest of the country.
As it turns out, the inherent system of checks and balances written into the US Constitution will, over time, push the country towards the direction that the majority of society desires.
That democratic direction, much like life, will ebb and flow. It moves in fits and starts. Two steps forward, one step back.
On big societal issues like civil rights, marijuana legality, and gay marriage, change is a generational thing. Change occurs too slowly for those who want the change; too quickly for those who object.
Along the way, we tend to fear and get angry with those “others” who disagree with our beliefs. In the minds of factions, these “others” are destroying the country that we are–or, conversely– are preventing the country from achieving what we could be.
Who really is the other?
Our minds label and categorize everything; including people.
Labeling helps us understand the world around us. It shapes our thoughts. It enables us to gather information and make use of it. Without this ability humans would be no different than primitive animals.
It also functions to keep us safe. Categorizing occurs as an unconscious process within the realm of our brain’s limbic system. One of its main priorities is to enable us to differentiate between friend and foe and get us out of danger. We need these capabilities to keep us alive.
On the other hand, this labeling mind of ours is an unapologetic stereo-typer.
If left unchecked, our minds create divisions in human society where none truly exist.
In terms of DNA, humans are 99.5% the same.
White and black, Asian and Indian, Jew and Gentile, and any other category you wish to come up with to describe a group of people, are essentially meaningless unless you choose to believe what your mind is telling you.
Our primitive danger alert system assigns too much priority to the 0.5% of difference.
If not overruled by the more advanced regions of the human brain that enable us to reason, this view of “others” can lead us to a very dark place when we start labeling certain groups, or states, more “American” than others.
What is Division, Anyway?
You hear it all the time: Americans are so divided.
Truthfully, I don’t buy into the idea that Americans are more divided than ever.
The 1960s: JFK, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Civil Rights, the Freedom Riders, LBJ, Nixon, Vietnam, Chicago Democratic Convention.
Now that was division.
That was complete societal convulsion.
Having differing political opinions is not being divided.
It’s called democracy.
In uncertain economic times, fear tends to ratchet up emotions. Simple political differences get magnified.
Is America so divided? If you hear it enough, I guess you start to believe it. It’s called the Big Lie. Repeat something enough and people start to believe it. It works better when the idea is simple to understand and has an “us” versus “them” aspect to it.
I suspect most adults wake up, go to work, do their daily things, and never even notice the so called division, unless you discuss politics. But again, political disagreement is democracy.
I frequent salsa events, with Latinos, whites, blacks, Asians, Indians, gays, lesbians, transgender. In ten years I have yet to see any type of incident, yet I’m relatively sure there is a diversity of political opinion among the dancers.
Finding What You Seek
The human mind works like this: what you go looking for, you’ll find.
If you go searching for divisiveness, anger, and hate, you’ll find it. Turn on the TV and watch the news.
But watching an anti-Trump protest and getting outraged is a pointless endeavor. You’re seeing a distorted view of reality.
Of the 65 million people who voted for Hillary Clinton, how many actually took to the streets and protested? A few thousand?
Likewise, of the almost 63 million people who voted for Donald Trump, how many gave a Nazi salute? 20? 30?
I’m fairly certain that If you didn’t watch any news or look at social media at all, you’d probably remain blissfully unaware of all the apparent discord in our country.
At our worst, we take the actions, behaviors, and beliefs of a few and make it representative of the whole. It’s completely delusional, but sometimes it makes us feel better. It’s so easy to do. It takes no real thought. It can be comforting, too. It takes all the responsibility off of you. “Others” are creating your problems.
As diverse as America is, the majority of Americans live segregated lives. We still self-segregate racially, ethnically, religiously, and economically.
According to a new study from the Brookings Institution, If zero is a measure for perfect integration and 100 is complete segregation, most of the country’s largest metropolitan areas have segregation levels of between 50 to 70. This means that most whites and blacks rarely come in any intimate contact with each other. This is not confined solely to racial segregation.
Economic segregation is real, as well. Those that live in wealthy communities rarely come in any meaningful contact with the middle class and poor. They may “know” middle class and poor people superficially, but they don’t know them well enough to relate to their experiences, understand the daily stress and challenges of being poor.
“He is full of the poor, whom he has just discovered”.
Charles Masterman, regarding Winston Churchill’s conversion from Conservative to Neo-liberalism in early 1900s.
While the 1% (ah, my labeling mind) know that poor people exist, they likely don’t understand the experience of being poor.
That’s because the Horatio Alger rags to riches story, where impoverished young men use simple integrity and hard work to better their station in life, are statistically quite rare.
The fact is that the biggest predictor of success is who you were born to. It pays to have the right parents, at the right place, at the right time (white baby boomers unite!). Your birth was statistically improbable to begin with, but to be born to wealthy parents on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is absurdly good luck.
What often goes unnoticed by those who are more fortunate, there are considerable advantages gained from growing up in a safe environment, with a stable family life, and attending high achieving schools.
Most of my closest friends are minorities, many born into very humble, and often difficult circumstances.
I am a white male from a mostly middle class background. I can’t relate to their experiences.
I’m never looked at differently (except when people find out I’m their salsa teacher). I’m not pulled over because I look suspicious. I’ve never been told I couldn’t go to college. It’s never assumed that I’m uneducated because of my skin color or because Spanish is my first language.
But my friends have experienced these things. Their opinions are based on the life experiences as they have experienced them. It’s not for others to judge those experiences as valid or invalid.
I also have friends who come from more affluent backgrounds whose experiences may lead them to different conclusions about life. Perhaps their preoccupations exist in a world almost unimaginable to most Americans: living up to professional expectations they set for themselves, satisfying their parents expectations, constantly being pushed to excel in school. And don’t forget, the messiness of personal relationships transcend socioeconomic status.
A poorer person may think “those are problems?”.
Well, yes they are. Our problems are often unique to our personal situation. Others may not think it’s a problem, but they aren’t us.
What this means is that you can’t generalize about any group of people. Rich people have problems. Poor people have problems. Middle class people have problems. All are real for the person experiencing them.
Your external circumstances don’t change your inner life. You can be happy no matter where you find yourself because happiness is a state of mind, not something you can purchase (although I do believe beeing happy and poor is more challenging, and I think studies reflect this).
If you are upset about the state of the country, or feel like the country is falling apart, you can take solace that you are not alone. Most people are upset with the state of the country. It just so happens that not everyone agrees on what the state of the country should actually be.
Your dearly held opinion is often at odds with people who hold their opinions just as dearly. That will never change. But instead of immediately condemning the “other”, try talking to them. You’ll probably find they have legitimate reasons, based on their knowledge and experiences as an individual or group, that leads them to believe what they believe. You may even find that if you were presented with the same circumstances, you might believe and act the same way they do.
Understanding the experiences of people who hold a world view diametrically opposed from your own facilitates and understanding that they aren’t evil because they disagree with you.
They’re just stupid.