Updated: Jul 5, 2021
(originally posted 11/22/20)
We’re at a troubling place in our country, one where politics have become a primary element of personal identity. This is how polarization happens and completely apolitical things like wearing masks in a pandemic become politicized. It happens because it makes political discourse feel like an existential threat when it may not otherwise be. Identity has every reason to influence politics, without question. If you are a member of a marginalized community, it’s very possible that your choice of political party or affiliation is related not so much to your personal ideals but more to the way the majority culture treats you. On the other hand, if you’re a member of the majority culture - that is, straight, white, and cisgender, like I am - then you are not really threatened by either party because of your identity. There can be debates about things like effective economic or medical policy, sure, but that’s not the same as a threat to your very existence simply because of who you are. What this means is that the ferocity of our division on an individual level is heavily rooted in politics as personal identity. If we remove politics, it is very likely we share much in common with many of our conservative counterparts, maybe even more than we share with some people under the same (sometimes grudgingly) gargantuan and incredibly diverse umbrella that is the Democratic Party.
Why does this matter? There is a massive split in this country, as we are all well aware, and it is fueled by a split media atmosphere, the quasi-connected isolation that is social media, and the physical geographic sorting of our populations into real life versions of the echo chambers that we like to talk about existing on the internet. As a result, facts themselves have become politically controversial and we have less and less physical contact with people who disagree with us. This means that trying to refute the views of a stranger on the internet with information, no matter how good it is, is at this point all but useless. So what do we do? What combats this stalemate? Relationships. Human connection. If we’re honest with ourselves, we as straight, white, cis people generally have an emotional bandwidth that many members of minority groups don’t. Mirroring their expressions of rage and frustration can be both disingenuous and counterproductive. We are not existentially threatened by socially conservative movements so we have more leeway to be around those ideas we may disagree with. We also share a culture with many conservative people. Do you like sports? Football? Baseball? Barbecue? Beer? Music? The outdoors? Making things? Fixing stuff? Building? Burgers? Milkshakes? Cars? Road trips? There are many common elements of our culture. Our politics may differ, but that doesn’t mean we are inherently different and we shouldn’t treat each other as such.
If we view people with opposing opinions as lost causes and stop trying to talk to each other and convince each other of our viewpoints there is nothing left but force - and that is neither pleasant nor does it work well or for extended periods of time. This isn’t a doomsday fear, it’s a deduction. If there is an ideological struggle between two different groups with similar levels of power and efforts to communicate and change minds cease, the only option left for gaining and maintaining power is force. On the other hand, if you’re trying to change minds, it makes sense to do what works and not what doesn’t (this is generally a good idea with anything). What works is relationship based discussion of ideas over time. It’s not fast, which is certainly inconvenient, but it’s what’s most likely to be effective. Treat people with respect, as humans, realize your political party or choice for president is not all there is to you as a person, and use those realizations to connect with people that have different political opinions than you. It is also important to realize there are many different reasons that people can come to the same set of ideas. Just because someone holds a view that is dangerous doesn’t necessarily mean they got there maliciously, which is a strange and complicated thing to accept but as someone who has said and believed some unfortunate things in the past, I’m walking evidence of this. Learning about why someone thinks something can be a powerful thing. Often, now, it has to do with a different understanding of certain parts of our language or being fed falsities from a corrupted media environment with ulterior motives. Minds can and must be changed; and it all but certainly won’t happen by yelling at strangers on the internet, posturing ourselves as some holier than thou figures, or adopting an “us vs them” attitude. You probably had to learn a lot to get to where you are, don’t judge others for being behind you in their journey.
You are more than your political affiliation. Explore other parts of your identity and use them to meet people, connect with them, and start to engage in real human discussions. Doing this is not validating ideas you disagree with or diminishing their potential danger, it is addressing the realities of how to change them. It’s hard to not get results right away, patience is rough when important things are on the line. Unfortunately, as unideal as it is, this is where we’re at as a country. What this is doing is building foundations for better and more useful discussions. You can agree or connect with on some things and not others (and cutting somebody out of your life as a means of showing them their beliefs are wrong is only effective if you had a meaningful relationship in the first place and had many clear and explicit discussions about the topic beforehand - much like addressing addiction). Building these relationships means not always talking about politics. That doesn’t mean you are ignoring them (it is also not to be misconstrued with never talking about politics), what it means is that you are attempting to approach them in ways that are more effective. When expertise becomes ignored or even vilified, if you want people to listen to you they need to have a connection to you. Trust in experts is not going to come from more experts telling someone to listen to them, it’s going to take people in their lives convincing them that the experts are worth listening to. Just your simple presence as a person who is showing respect and allowing a relationship to foster despite political disagreements may help to put a crack in the partisan wall in the other person’s mind. To many people - perhaps most, if we admit it - words from a trusted friend or respected acquaintance are more powerful than distant messages from on high. It’s time to be those trusted friends, those respected acquaintances, and say those words.
It’s cultural de-escalation. What would that look like?