I spent the week leading up to Christmas meeting the family of a close friend. There is a world of difference between hearing about people and spending time with them. I knew that there was a significant cultural divide as well as geographical. But how different can we be?
Knowing there was a possibility I would be challenged in my viewpoints, I spent some time leading up to the visit preparing myself. I’ve been there before, having that drawn-out point-by-point debate over the details of every issue. While it might be emotionally satisfying in the moment, it doesn’t seem to have any of the desired affects overall in most circumstances. So, I determined to try a new path, and merely focus on humanizing my existence.
That shouldn’t be so hard, right? To say, ‘Hey, we disagree on some major points, but I think your heart is in the right place and I hope you can see that mine is too.’
I don’t know if I succeeded. I tend to think I didn’t, although that may merely be my mind churning my natural pessimism into memory.
And to the great credit of the family, they were welcoming and kind, even after the first night where the only political discussion took place, and became very heated. Spending time with them was a delight. They are wonderful people, and I should like to see them again.
More specifically to their credit, when an incorrect assertion was made about my statements during the heated discussion, the whole family immediately leapt to my defense, before I could. And upon being called out, the assertion was withdrawn.
Apart from the actual disagreements, it speaks volumes to have practical demonstration of that genuine earnestness we presume has been banished from discourse. We don’t have pure foundations. We have root structures born out of experience, data, and yes, interest. Roots are hard to dig up, harder to relocate, and these difficulties increase if the root is driven to a tighter hold by fierce accusations.
The right hears the left screaming epithets, and the left hears the right demanding that oppression be continued. Neither assertion is exclusively valid. For those who think the other side is really that simple and evil, you need to make a serious effort to understand your opposition from their point of view, rather than your own. It’s difficult, but it is not the most difficult thing that can be done.
There were several moments of conscious awareness that I was not the target of anger. I was the embodiment of a caricature that had been constructed to take the place of a right-winger. Numerous other conversations hinted at the possibility that I might have been the only open Republican voter to have spent time in the house. This may be untrue and certainly can be marked down to my own tendency to reduce the other side to a caricature.
But there was a surreal feeling of being the focus of anger at a set of ideas that I don’t believe are held by any significant portion of my side. The rabbit holes come by quickly, and in politics, rabbit holes serve only to bury the rabbit.
What to do then? Was it effective to address no particulars and merely state vague platitudes? Reduce the Reaganite/Hamiltonian admonition to a few words? If you cannot trust the people to be good, why can you trust a government of people to make them good?
I don’t think it was effective. I think that conversation was a total loss and a waste of time. I certainly did not help with my approach. But I don’t think that any other approach would have been better, and I suppose at a minimum, I can say that I was not dishonest about myself to this gracious family who invited me in and fed me for six days.
I truly like them. I have no idea what they feel about me, although we had many amicable discussions throughout the rest of the visit. I hope they like me, but in my sad and pessimistic memory, I don’t know.
And where does it leave the country if these are the states of relative disagreement? My views are not very extreme and haven’t been for five years or so, and I don’t think theirs are either. But we’re far enough apart in interaction and experience that we cannot tell where on the gradient each other is, and so we cannot have any meaningful discussion at all. The groundwork must be laid again, that groundwork which once was the bedrock of society whereby disagreement could be had from at least a unifying foundation.
The two sides no longer grant each other even the barest courtesy of humanity. We are all villains, and it is almost impossible to stop seeing each other as such. My feigning at being the aloof, generous recipient of invalid, malicious attacks is also unfair. I had a few conversations alone with my friend attempting to justify my side. In such moments, anger can quickly boil, and I have to apologize to her. I am also subject to seeing the other side as a caricature, and every step of the way, harshly critiquing my own perspective of the left is in order, and I fail too often at that.
We can blame this on evolutionary biology, if we want to escape responsibility. Your views bear information that indicate more than the mere topic of discussion. We are a species that establishes groups and can ruthlessly exclude on many bases. This can account for the bubbles of isolation built around beliefs.
But I also believe we are responsible, and not merely biological actors. Therefore, it is important that we step outside of the shells we construct now and then, to actually put ourselves to the test.
Once in American history, the geography of significant political disagreement, though rough, was much cleaner than it now is. Apart from a dissolution of the federal government, leaving a confusion of squabbling states, there is no way the separation can be made on geographical boundaries. The enclaves of ideology are growing, and that is not good. It is not good to never be challenged in the prevailing view, because that is all that surrounds you. We must find a way to get along.
And maybe that is the one benefit of having that conversation. Knowing more about each other, and then putting those serious disputes aside to simply get along in amicable and even friendly terms for the five other days.
I would visit again in a heartbeat, if only to continue putting pressure on the caricatures, on my biases, on my limited experience. But I would also visit because the family is nice, the city is pleasant, and the food is good.
We have more in common than we realize, than we want to realize. The squeaky-wheel effect remains a dominant lens. But time rolls us onward, and it would be best if the tensions were turned toward reconciliation, rather than further polarization.
Let us not presume the worst of each other, simply because of disagreement.