We. Must. End. The. Divide.
Five very simple, straightforward words. We have serious problems in America, and the only way that they can be solved is if the chasm that divides Americans is somehow bridged. The only way that chasm can be bridged is by actually talking with one another.
You might think that I, as someone who has made a career in the free-market/limited-government movement, was raised in an environment where I had parents quoting Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard to me, or went to a high school where Ayn Rand was on the syllabus. In reality, while I did learn a great deal about skepticism from my environmental-scientist Dad, and had my love of nation and the principles of the founding cemented by trips to Lexington & Concord and Colonial Williamsburg around the time of the Bicentennial, I also lived in a household with a Berkeley-raised, Peace Corps-volunteering mother. And in my high school, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, you were more-likely to find Das Kapital on the syllabus than anything by Adam Smith.
But if there was any lesson that was well-ingrained by my time at Fieldston, it was a deep and abiding respect for the views of others, and the importance of listening with an open-ear (that and, at least at the time, a reinforcement of the necessity of skepticism and a healthy distrust of authority). You cannot solve problems without dialogue, and you cannot have dialogue without actively listening to someone else.
This past weekend, following the attack in Orlando, I made an affirmative decision not to comment on my social media. The din was already too loud, too contentious, and nothing I could have said would have added to it. Moreover, in all probability, whatever I had said would have been attacked or misinterpreted.
I read. I read what my conservative, pro-Second Amendment friends wrote. I read what my pro-gun control friends wrote. My friends who were concerned about Islamic terrorism, my friends concerned about Islamophobia. My friends who saw this as a hate crime against the LGBTQA community specifically, and my friends who saw this as a hate crime against the United States overall.
I read, because when you’re trying to understand what people are taking away from a situation, it’s better to listen than it is to speak.
I read, and one thing became abundantly clear: the 24-hour social media cycle has caused the various factions to become even more entrenched, their immediate reactions betraying a driving need to balkanize people still more. No breathing room. No time to process events. No time to allow people to show their humanity to one another.
In the public policy world, we are in the business of solving problems. Solving those problems has become more difficult as the chasm between political viewpoints has virtually exploded — both in width and depth — and that balkanization makes it impossible for people to find common ground.
Most disturbing, probably, is the desire of some people to silence their opponents in other areas as well — ranging from efforts to criminalize dissent on climate policy to silencing the voices of social media opponents.
I woke up on Tuesday to find that a neighbor, the father of one of my children’s best friends, had unfriended and blocked me on a social media site. I was part of a gleeful “De-Friending Extravaganza” (of two people, of which I was one, apparently). I hadn’t posted anything on my wall regarding Orlando, yet this person proclaimed me to be a “loud and proud gun toting wacko” (while declaring himself a “sensible, rational” person).
I’ve unfriended people in the past. I’ve done so if that person had actually done something to me personally — like the talk radio host who decided to make an 8-month geographic separation between me and my wife, due to her military career, the source of comedy on his show one afternoon. Or if someone has said something offensive, and I don’t really know them.
But I’ve never unfriended someone over their personal politics — and how they state that politics online (and most certainly not someone with whom I had socialized, and with whom I actually have to interact with in real life on a fairly regular basis).
I find such behavior both sad and counter-productive. I have progressive friends (far more progressive, in fact, than this individual, though I’m fairly certain that he views himself as the furthest to the left of anyone I know), and without them my life, and the discourse therein, would be terribly dull and, to a great extent, uninformative.
When you cut out the opinions of those with whom you disagree, “dialogue” becomes “monologue” very quickly.
And to me, when a politically motivated unfriending happens, it says far more about the person doing the unfriending than it does about the person being unfriended. On one level, it bespeaks an inability to engage in a rational, thoughtful discussion. On another, and perhaps more important, it demonstrates a thorough lack of respect for other people.
Which makes it impossible to end the divide. Koch Industries (yes, that Koch Industries!) has launched an ambitious, and in my view, noble, effort to “get a national conversation going” on issues, to allow people to find common ground. With both a hashtag (#EndTheDivide) and a website (www.EndTheDivide.com), Koch wants to bring people together.
We have serious problems in America. Serious issues requiring serious discussion. That’s the only way we’re going to solve those problems. We can’t do it by talking past each other, by shouting, or by talking to ourselves.
We have to talk with one another. And we have to listen.