Anger and Angst in Today’s Politics

I may lose some friends over this but I’ve been stewing on it for a long time and decided it’s something I have to say. I am alarmed and stunned by the number of people I know to be individually compassionate, kind, and generous people who are showing completely different tendencies when they engage in today’s political debate. Let me be clear here…I’m not arguing for or against anyone’s particular beliefs…in fact civil argument has become very difficult to engage in with many people…I am commenting about the deeply divisive, often hateful speech I am encountering among friends and acquaintances on a daily basis.

I get it. The world is seriously scary at the moment and all of us, me too, are drawn to arguments that provide us with simple answers showing us who to blame and what to believe. But the world, and our country, are complicated places and simple answers might make us feel better but they don’t solve complicated problems in the long run.

I watch as we latch onto ideas telling us who and what is to blame for all our problems, be they economic, social, or personal, and wonder at how we can so easily accept packaged arguments simply because they lay the blame on someone else. I puzzle over how we can treat people as a group — be they Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans, liberals, conservatives, LGBTs, whoever — much more cruelly and hatefully than we would ever treat them as individuals. Some might say that’s because we have more courage to vent anger at a group than one-on-one, and there may be something to that, but I also suspect it’s because when we get to know someone a little better they don’t fit into a simple stereotype. I see this all the time when I hear us say “she’s not like other “___’s” or “he’s a good guy, he’s like us.”

Often we have to be quite selective as we pick and choose what we accept as truth. There’s a term for this behavior….it’s called confirmation bias….it refers to how we tend to only seek out arguments or information which support what we already believe. When we do this we stop listening to anything else, or try to drown it out by shouting over it. This is a common tendency not limited to any one side of the political spectrum. The more we try to order the world by only listening to what we already agree with the harder it is to talk to people who differ from us. We look to our favorite media outlet to package information that supports our beliefs….it can be MSNBC, Fox, or anyone in between. But the networks feed our bias. They can’t make money unless we watch them and we tend not to watch something that makes us uncomfortable. So they identify a market and then give that market what it wants….as in how it slants the content.

Here’s the problem: I’m not afraid of anyone else’s beliefs and I’m not afraid to discuss them…maybe I’ll learn something and I certainly don’t believe I will be easily brainwashed or infected by someone else’s ideas…but I am afraid when we just start yelling at each other, not listening to each other, calling each other unpleasant names and when we form groups and begin thinking we can only survive if we wipe out other groups. That’s certainly happened plenty of times in history so it’s certainly possible again.

So when I think about all the children I know I worry about them being safe and well-cared for in a world filled with dangers and uncertainties….they are our tomorrow. But I firmly believe that they will all be best served by giving them the strength and confidence to make their own way in a world we cannot even properly imagine. We know kids learn life from watching their parents, adopting their beliefs, imitating their behavior…at least early on. But what if what we teach them doesn’t completely match the world of tomorrow? Think of all the things our kids have to navigate around today versus the world their grandparents experienced. What we can do, in addition to teaching them the things we hold to be true and dear, is make sure they see us treating all people with respect, making sure they understand that they have the ability to make up their own minds because we’ve taught them how to check facts and respectfully challenge and question ideas that are forced upon them. I guarantee you they will shout over other people and write off wide swathes of the human race if they see us do that. And the thing is they might write off a different set of people than the ones they saw us casually discount as human beings…they may learn our methods but apply them differently.

We have to keep talking, civilly, patiently and keeping just a tiny crack in the door to let new ideas in. It takes practice and it can be frightening sometimes and exhausting often. But it can also be exciting and enriching. It can make the world a safer place with a little more understanding. It can help our children enter a not quite so scary world…not because it has suddenly become less dangerous…but because our children are more secure in their own ability not to be driven by fear and hate.