Different Factions; Same Tribe
I was in Washington, D.C. this past weekend. I witnessed firsthand the Inauguration of President Donald Trump, as well as the massive Women’s March that took place the following day. I walked in the middle of both crowds, though size is not something I care to write about at the moment. I want to ruminate on how this weekend made me more confident than ever in the future of our Republic, and taught me an important lesson about how our nation approaches political dialogue in 2017.
The lesson: the brunt of the work in mending our political divides comes down to where we choose to focus our attention.
The first part is tangential, though it ultimately relates: this weekend was one of the few times I found myself in the middle of a national story as it unfolded. On both Friday and Saturday, it felt as if the whole world had its eyes fixed on events playing out a stone’s throw from where I stood. Reporters I’ve followed for years on social media were tweeting out photos from locations one hundred yards from me. There was something jarring about scrolling through Twitter and seeing tweets about a guy I saw in line at the porta-potty five minutes prior. In the mindless, thousand-mile-an-hour world of Twitter, it’s easy to box one another into the tiny space our avatars occupy — reporters are not actual human beings with families and mortgages, but intermittent purveyors of information meant to pique our curiosity and interests. Those we bicker with online are not souls in blood-pumping bodies behind computer screens, but worthless morons meant to be our verbal punching bags for half an hour before disappearing into the ether forever. This all-too-easy thought process is corroding precisely because of how subconsciously it consumes us.
It should not have taken being a primary source for me to realize this, but our news media has two inherent hurdles to climb every time they embark on the task of covering the news: the first is obvious, that reporters almost by definition are people so passionate about politics and the news that they’ve committed their entire careers to the endeavor. This of course means those passionate political junkies almost certainly have their own opinions on the matters of the day; for someone to get as far as being, say, a New York Times Reporter, they would have to live and breathe politics and news for a decade or more. These are people who know exactly where they land on the political spectrum. And so it is a daunting task for them to “report the news” without their biases interfering. Which is not to say it is impossible, but that is hurdle one.
Hurdle two is something that sunk in for me this weekend; reporting is just as much a question of focus as it is objectivity. If your job is to “cover the inauguration,” where you choose to focus your attention greatly impacts what your account portrays. An example: at the Inauguration, as part of his “capturing the scene” photojournalism, a respected NYT reporter tweeted out a picture of a crazy looking Trump supporter on the National Mall. I was fifty yards way, surrounded by tens of thousands of people, almost every single one of them normal and perfectly nice, if not boring. The guy in the photo — whom I stood behind in line for the bathroom — was quite literally the one crazy person out of ten thousand people in our section.
The tweet certainly did it’s job painting a narrative.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, many on the Right jumped all over the story of violent rioters breaking Starbucks windows on K Street. I was staying on I Street, and while it certainly happened, the talking point soon spiraled out of control online, the myth swirling away from truth. By the end of the day, Conservative Twitter could not stop talking about the hordes of violent leftists attacking and disrupting the Inauguration.
By focusing our eyes on only what we wanted to see, we all ended up getting our stories. I think we do this to one another in our political dialogue as well.
I left D.C. this weekend with a greater confidence in our nation’s future because of all the genuinely nice people I met and witnessed on both sides of the aisle. The Trump supporters in MAGA hats on Friday could not have been more normal. They were gracious, happy, polite, calm. They were not shouting racial slurs or tossing haymakers at those that looked different than them. Almost every one of the Women’s Marchers on Saturday was the same way — I know, because I was in a tight bottleneck on the National Mall, walking in the opposite direction of 10,000 of them and they all kept moving aside kindly to let me pass. There were almost 1,000,000 people marching, and not one got arrested. That is the definition of human goodness.
I write about this all the time, but I think life is often properly represented by bell graphs. In politics, I would bet our bell graph of human decency looks fairly identical to this:
The vast majority of us are good, kind-hearted people with a genuine interest in the betterment of society. There are jerks and awful people on both sides of the aisle, to be sure, but their numbers are small in comparison to the bulk of our population.
Yet on social media, each side continues to fall back into the lazy rhetorical motif of dehumanizing their political opponents by labeling them personified evil. We keep re-posting the phrase “When they go low, we go high,” each time the word they losing more and more of its direct relation to real human beings.
At this point who is they?
On Friday, for those posting that phrase, they were super happy and nice people at the Inauguration, and you were the ones hurling rocks into Starbucks windows. I know my good friends that write that on Facebook would never violently riot, but I think the point is important:
Too often we reduce our political disagreements to battles of good vs. evil, where our side is always good and their side always evil, where our opinions are infallible and their opinions so wicked they should not even be given the time of day.
This is how 2016 happened. We created bubbles of our own ideologies and refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of dissenting thought. We muted and ignored and blocked and hid the sounds of opposing political views, justifying the censorship with words like “racism,” “Nazism,” and “fascism.” This is how millions of people felt like a mack truck hit them on the night of November 8th — for them, no one they spoke to in person or conversed with on Facebook supported Donald Trump.
Where did these 63 million people come from?
It comes back again to where we focus our attention. In this case, the question of focus relates to human interaction. Will we continue to avoid eye-contact and look past one another in political dialogue? Will we huddle together with our political allies and congratulate each other on our sterling opinions, constantly liking and sharing identical takes on every issue while refusing to confront the possibility that our opinions are wrong?
Or will we actively choose to look across the aisle at one another and focus on our hearts and minds?
It might sound a little cheesy, but when you do that you’re honoring our nation’s long history of healthy political dialogue; you’re elevating the noble idea that we are (mostly) all empathetic individuals who want to promote the goodwill of our nation and see it succeed, despite our opposing suggestions for solving the problems we face.
In this way:
Healthcare is not a question of one side caring for poor and sick people while the other side laughs hysterically as the least of society keels over in the street. It’s a question of the best and most cost-effective way to provide quality health care to as many people as we can in our country.
Illegal Immigration is not a question of one side wanting to protect our citizens while the other side high-fives ISIS terrorists sprinting across the border. It’s a question of the best and most-effective way of allowing people to immigrate into our country, knowing we cannot take in all 7 Billion people in the world, and that inefficiencies in our system have negative effects on our society/economy.
Gun Control is not a question of one side wanting to walk around with Bazookas while the other side simply wants to save the children. It’s a question of the reasonable rights of someone to defend themselves and the degree of limitations on how far that right extends.
Global Warming is not a question of one side wanting to drive Hummers and piss away the coral reefs while the other side desperately works to save our planet. It’s a question of the human impact on global temperatures and environmental decay, and the cost/benefit/effectiveness of proposed initiatives to counteract our contribution to these negative trends.
The Size of Government is not a question of one side wanting to turn America into Communism while the other side fights to save our very Republic. It’s a question of the distinct role government should play in our lives, and the fluctuating ways in which more and less government makes sense.
The important takeaway from this, besides agreeing we both might have the same noble intentions even if our prescriptions are wildly different, is that FACTS and STATISTICS and DATA become King.
When we acknowledge one another’s humanity, and actively choose to focus on how our political foes are sincerely attempting to solve our nation’s problems, we allow data to become the driving force behind our dialogue. We are able to articulate our beliefs and defend them with statistics, studies, and real life outcomes — and with the added bonus of not ruining friendships and working relationships.
Whether in journalism our within our own Facebook News feeds, I believe consciously deciding what we focus our attention on will serve us well in 2017 and beyond.
We live in uncertain but exciting times.
We are different factions of the same tribe.
Let’s drop our red and blue weapons and focus on our tribe — America, of course, but even larger than that, our tribe of human beings.
I may disagree with you, but I promise to err on the side of affirming your sincere intentions at the outset of any political conversation. This is where I’m fixing my eyes at the start of 2017.
This is why I am hopeful about the future of our Republic. I stood in the Middle of the National Mall for two straight days and saw goodness and decency stretch out for miles until it trailed off into the hazy curve of the horizon.
We are going to be OK.
So long as we turn toward goodness, we are going to be OK.
Benjamin Holcomb is a writer who lives in California with his wife and Siberian Husky puppy. His chief interests are Jesus, politics, and tinkering with algorithms that quantify an NBA player’s greatness. His first book, THE PURSUIT, comes out in early 2017.