Turn on any talk show or read the headlines churned out by newsrooms, and you will see the contention made that we as a nation have never been more divided. That we have reached a new and remarkable impasse, unparalleled by anything previously seen. That we are navigating uncharted waters.
And you know what?
Pardon my French, but it is.
In a country that catalogues slavery and segregation amidst its annals of history, it is the height of sciolism and a mark of ahistoricism to suggest that we, in this moment, are uniquely divided.
But we say it, regardless. We say it because the majority of us have never had to experience the adverse effects of slavery and segregation, having been cloaked in the protection of power. We say it because this feeling of discomfort, fueled by a belief that we are at battle with the differing factions of our nation, is new to us. But the proposition runs contrary to history, and I think it important to keep perspective.
Nonetheless, we are terribly divided these days, more so than in recent decades, and you needn’t look any further than presidential approval ratings for evidence. According to Bloomberg, Joe Biden’s “mid-30s disapproval number is the second worst of the polling era, beating only Trump,” and is likely attributable to an ever-increasing “partisan polarization,” as “early-term disapproval has been rising steadily over the last several presidencies.”
So how do we fix this?
The solution is simple and yet difficult. Simple, in that these strategies are neither new nor revolutionary; difficult, in that we have found it nearly impossible to apply them to political discussion.
But if we all make an active effort to raise the level of discourse, we may well find progress hiding beneath.
So how do we best change hearts and minds? Let’s discuss.
This may seem simple enough, and as I said previously, it is—at least in theory. But all too often, we are content to observe our friends and family members spiral into tribalism, resisting the urge to engage, too scared to rock the boat. Sometimes, it’s because we lack the energy; other times, because we lack the desire—likely out of a fear of damaging relationships or of being ill-equipped to tackle ensuing debate.
But if we are to exit our echo chambers and truly understand each other, we have to engage. And we have to engage with an open mind and in good faith. Because it is not enough to start the conversation; we must also conduct it in earnest.
Watch Your Tone
In order to convey that exercise in good faith, we must also employ the proper tone. Are you angry? Retreat until you can compose yourself. Are you judgmental? Excise any hint of that from your mode of expression.
An adversarial conversation can elicit much the same response as a physical threat, and if you have activated your conversational partner’s fight-or-flight response, said conversation will be over before it has begun. In fact, an individual’s beliefs may even strengthen in the face of new evidence that debunks them—a phenomenon known as the backfire effect. Years ago, researchers at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute found that the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that responds to a physical threat, also responds to an intellectual one. So keep that little nugget of information tucked away in the back of your mind as you engage with those around you, and use your tone and the content of your speech to minimize the perceived threat.
But how do we use the content of our speech to minimize threats?
This may seem like the simplest of all instructions, but in practice, it can be difficult. When the subject matter is one that we are passionate about, we are likely to enter the discussion with our ready-made arguments holstered and eager to be deployed. Thus, while our conversational partner is speaking, we are less likely to be listening and more likely to be teeing up our next retort.
This may feel effective in the moment; after all, success is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, right? But if you watched the 2011 Alabama/LSU game, you probably also know that, sometimes, the best offense is a good defense. And the only way that you can devise a good defense is by . . . well . . . listening, and knowing which specific arguments you are actually defending against.
And aside from the strategy involved, listening harkens back to operating in good faith. If you are actually looking to engage in a dialogue and not just impose your views onto others, you should be listening so that you can better understand. Because you may just hear something that you hadn’t previously considered. And if you are engaging in active listening, reflective listening, or empathic listening, you are less likely to activate that fight-or-flight response, as the other party to your discussion will be less likely to view you as an adversary and more likely to view you as an equal and a potential ally.
And when you are done listening, take the time to synthesize what you have been told. Put yourself in the other party’s shoes and cast their motives in the best possible light, rather than the worst.
Find Common Ground Early
Though it may not seem like it at times, we have more in common than we think.
Take gun legislation, for example. This is one of those hot-button topics that is sure to activate the amygdala and be perceived as an intellectual threat. And yet Americans are largely unified around the issue—not that you would know it by party rhetoric.
According to a poll conducted by PBS Newshour, NPR, and Marist, 89% of Americans would like to increase mental health funding, 83% would like to require background checks for private and gun show sales, 72% are in favor of creating a national “red flag” law, and 72% are in favor of requiring a license before purchase.
So start by discussing your stance on popular positions. Chances are, you are more likely to agree than not, and if you agree, you are starting closer together than you otherwise would be, making it that much easier to unify in the middle.
We come into these conversations with a lot of personal baggage. We carry with us our experiences, our biases, our preconceived notions, and, yes, our stereotypes. So if you know that the other party is likely making assumptions about you that are not true, do not be afraid to nip those in the bud at the commencement of the conversation.
Because realizing that the other person isn’t this caricature that you’ve concocted in your head helps to humanize that person and also their viewpoints.
Now, we are not suggesting that it is possible or even desirable to meet in the middle on every issue. There will be many instances where one party is either acting in bad faith or impervious to change, and more still where the issue is black and white and conceding ground towards the middle would serve as a shot to justice (racism, homophobia, et al.).
But for those other issues? We have to find a way to discuss them without resorting to ad hominem attacks, lest we find ourselves further entrenched in our respective corners, failing to appreciate each other’s shared humanity.
Because while we are certainly not as divided as we have ever been, we are more divided than we have been in the recent past. And we needn’t be. But the advent of social media has led to a rise in radicalism and extremism, and the only way that we combat that as a nation is to engage, listen, and understand. And we don’t do that by relegating politics to an arbitrary list of taboo topics never to be spoken of amongst family and friends.
We do it by tackling these issues head-on and actually seeing each other and all of our varied experiences.
I had the pleasure of talking about this and other related issues on this week’s episode of The Okayest Mom’s podcast. It was an illuminating conversation that was inspiring to be a part of, and I hope that you’ll give it a listen.