No matter which side we’re on, many of us feel bruised and battered. We’re shocked to find ourselves in a land where differences have become blood feuds. America is like an angry couple who can’t get along and can’t split up. After a long night of fighting we’ve awakened with a bad hangover, shaking our heads in wonder. Did we really say those things to each other? How could the name-calling get so nasty and so loud?
Our most passionate fights are usually driven by fear. Fear of loss, fear of being left out, fear of being shamed or embarrassed. Whether the conflict is with family, with coworkers, or with political opponents, we may lead with anger, but just below the surface is fear.
Human beings are built to worry. Our survival instinct makes us scan the horizon for what might be waiting out there to hurt us. The ‘worry organ’ that lives in each of us is easy to inflame. A recent review of more than 100 research experiments confirms that appealing to our fears actually works. It’s a tactic that’s good at shaping our attitudes, changing our minds, getting us to move. And when our fears are aroused, as psychologist Jonathan Haidt reminds us, we get more tribal. We raise the drawbridge and try to shut out the danger.
Whether we feel like winners or losers after the events of November 8th, that impulse to circle the wagons is strong. Go ahead, we think, let the Trump administration make a mess of things. Or, let those elitist liberals rot in their blue enclaves. It’s comforting to huddle separately, to be our most tribal selves.
But when we give in to that impulse to turn away from each other, to root for the destruction of “the other side,” we ignore three key facts:
1. Political standoffs are stealing our lives. Life is incredibly short. If we had infinite time, we could afford to engage in long feuds and standoffs. But if this were the last day of your life, would you want to spend it thwarting someone else’s efforts? Would you want to be remembered for having helped the gears of government grind to a halt? Or for having dismantled what’s useful just to prove your opponents wrong? Research shows that when people look back on their lives, the choices we regret most are those that wall us off from each other, choices that make us feel we don’t belong.
2. Our fellow Americans are not our enemies. Vigorous debate, serious disagreements, and party politics are the lifeblood of our democracy. But giving in to the temptation to see our political opponents as evil threatens the way of life we hold most dear. Deborah Tannen reminds us that once we stop trusting each other, we put our democratic system in danger.
3. Compromise works. When compromise becomes a dirty word – as it has in our political life over the past two decades – we lose the process of getting to “yes” that has been the foundation of our system of government. Experiments in negotiation make it clear that when we take the time to see the world from the other’s perspective, we find ways to get more of what each side wants. Standoffs may make us feel righteous, but compromise gets us more of what we all need.
There are places where we cannot bend, of course – racism, torture, other ways we do each other harm. But many of our most bitter feuds are not about these absolutes. They involve gray areas. And the standoffs we create end up making us feel disconnected, getting us less of what we want, and filling us with regret.
What’s the alternative?
1. Take yourself out of your comfort zone. Find at least one place where you regularly can spend time outside of your ideological bubble. Somewhere where you take a break from the community of people and the social media that tell you only what you want to hear, what you already believe. Think of a place where people of all stripes cross paths – people at the gym, volunteers at a soup kitchen or a food bank. Find ways to really listen to people who hold different views on social and political and financial issues. Walk a mile in their shoes.
2. Identify political feuds as the enemy. Call out those politicians who refuse to negotiate on issues where reasonable people can disagree. Applaud compromise and punish (at the ballot box) those who dig in their heels, regardless of party affiliation. Most of our divisions have some middle ground. Insist that our leaders find a way forward instead of widening the chasms.
3. Expose media manipulation. One-sided news reports may make us feel good, but they close our minds. Get out of your usual social media bubble that reinforces your cherished opinions. Demand and seek out more balanced news coverage. Vote with your ratings and support the sponsors of media outlets that offer us many sides of the issues. Sound bites insult our intelligence. Life is too complex to be reduced to slogans.
In 1985, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie wrote “We Are the World” and it became the fastest-selling pop single in history. With Quincy Jones, they brought together many of the most famous musical artists of the day to produce this song and raise funds to fight famine in Africa. One couplet stands out:
“There’s a choice we’re making/We’re saving our own lives.”
That’s where we are. We can choose to save our own lives by healing divisions right here in our midst, or starve our democracy by hiding self-righteously in our fortresses. Watch this video. Remind yourself of what’s at stake.