Standing On The Edge

21 August 2017

Since our national elections last November I’ve had a number of occasions to reflect on that old observation about boiling a frog in water that starts out cold. Supposedly, the frog doesn’t notice until it’s too late. I have no idea if that’s true; I can’t see doing that to a frog to test it out.

But it sounds right, and I can’t escape the sense that there’s a corollary going on in our society. Although there have been a number of egregious problems, over time our ‘social fabric’ — our implicit social contract and dynamics — has permitted people with often vastly different values and beliefs to establish a functioning society that tolerates its identity as being somewhere between homogenous and heterogeneous. What probably contributed to our ability to avoid flying apart over differences was the fact that social and political leadership more often than not emphasized aspects of ‘sameness’ that could be experienced or agreed upon by people otherwise polarized on a given issue. That has certainly changed, though; the internet has given polarizing leaders the ability to reach a dispersed audience, increasing ways to reinforce and amplify disaffection. And if we wish to, we can avoid the experience of sameness with someone we disagree with if we want to, and instead experience sameness with those who agree with us. If we needed any further evidence of the often blinding power of tribalism, we now have it. And the absence of leadership emphasizing sameness and commonalities has inflamed things in much the way poking a sore spot over and over does. After a while, there’s simply too much inflammation and the irritation is too frequent for it to subside.

I’ve watched people I know and care about go to various lengths to cleanse their internet and physical relationships of others who explicitly or tacitly agree with things Donald Trump does. I’ve tried to not do that, although it’s often hard to avoid indignation and anger about things some them say. To avoid isolating them or disconnecting from them, I often have to bite my tongue, but my values — informed by basic tenets based on the ‘golden rule’ — require me to seek to understand where possible, accept differences where silence isn’t tacit endorsement, and to forgive wherever possible when injury occurs.

I certainly have my own bias: I believe that our society should carefully welcome those who need refuge or who can make a contribution to our society; that we should care for the weak or disadvantaged; that economic forces need to be regulated so as to not create an unbridgeable gap between those seeking upward mobility and those who’ve achieved it; that science should be the foundation for understanding the natural world and an unvarnished history should inform education, policy and world affairs. I believe that the role of government is to assure appropriate protections of our society, its members, and our environment in areas where any of those cannot protect themselves. But I haven’t found, in practice, that my bias creates barriers with others.

I rarely find someone who holds opposite policy views from me who disagrees with the basic ideals I cite above. Where we diverge is more often on policy specifics designed to achieve those ideals, or how to handle conflicts that arise from competing priorities. What happens more often is that one or both of us, in the course of a discussion, reaches a point where too much of an ideal must be surrendered. That point, however individual and mutable, prevents compromise. But in most practical cases, it doesn’t have to create enemies.

Governance, though, requires a blending of ideals, and it appears that the slobbering voices of entrenched power have us locked in a deadly tug of war game that neither side can really win. Much has been written about what our elected officials have ‘lost’ in terms of collaboration and compromise.

An unfortunate reality of politics is that no side that’s honest about its own history can claim the high ground, at least in this country. Both major political parties behave much the same way on this point: in power or out of it, they seek to preserve it or regain it, too often believing that in the service of their ideals the end justifies the means. There are innumerable examples on both sides of how values and humanity can get checked at the door. In the too-frequent extreme, the obsessive search for preserving or achieving power creates fertile ground where the corrosive influences of hate, racism, violence, bigotry, venality and narcissism thrive. Preserving it is easy: it is nearly always viewed as in the best interests of those infatuated by power to overlook excesses done in their name, and conversely nearly always in the interests of those out of power to highlight those excesses, rather than look at their own. Taking the high road does not guarantee you’ll meet many others there.

The immature self-justifying claim that ‘everyone does it’ doesn’t excuse any behaviors; nor does it create a false equivalence between factions in conflict. Stupid or violent ‘counter protester’ actions are repugnant, but arguably not the same as hateful speech, racism, bigotry, or violence perpetrated to support or achieve those ends. Seeking to disrupt a social order isn’t the same as seeking to disrupt the disrupters, but when protestors adopt violence, they erase any potential moral advantage.

I’ve often asked myself how this all has come to be, and what I keep coming back to — and seeing — is the pervasiveness of fear. I see fear in friends who are concerned by the erosion of protections of rights, safety, economic protections and the environment. But I also see fear in those who are concerned about opaque government functions, erosion of personal and public safety, impotent or uneven responses to terrorism, social safety nets that seem to help some and insulate others, and so on. As the internet has facilitated dispersed tribal elements to find each other, fear has become something that’s not used to express personal concerns so much as something to be traded as a new tool of factional cohesion. Fear has always been a favored tool of those who have sought to create or perpetuate divisions. It may be due to the 24/7 news cycle, but fear seems to be more predominant now — and more available to those who seek to inflame it.

I’m not sure how we get out of this mess. Sometimes I think it’s a generational problem: that some of us simply have to get old and die off to permit changes to be made. But I also think that’s simplistic, because until we confront and change the dynamics that permit the corrupting influences of power and money to determine so much of how our governments function, those coming up behind the current crop of winners and losers will be molded by those dynamics before they can change them.

From where I stand, Trump isn’t the answer. Despite decrying ‘the swamp,’ he rode the same rails of power to office, and despite the red meat he throws to pacify his base, he often seems to be visibly self-correcting to wear his own version of the mantle of mainstream politics. Yet as troubled as I am by him, I am almost more troubled that there doesn’t seem to be any effective organized alternative at this point. It would appear that the Democratic Party’s leadership has feverishly cobbled together a ‘lite’ version of much of the same emotional appeal to people’s fears and concerns that the GOP rode so effectively to power last November. Those afraid of returning to Democratic power will be incented to forgive Trump’s excesses and oafishness. Those afraid of Republicans maintaining power will be incented to overlook the tepid case being built that seeks to co-opt voters’ sympathies and allegiances. I don’t imagine many voters are resting easy: there isn’t much evidence of Democratic mastery of brand and message in the last decade or more that should give their voters reason for optimism; nor is there much evidence of GOP effectiveness while in control in Washington, D.C.

So where to from here? I think there is one fundamental problem, and three levels of action that are required. If the main problem is fear — its invocation, its reinforcement and its manipulation, then it will only change when it’s directly addressed.

From micro to macro, I see three steps. First, individuals need to understand that, frustration and anger aside, when they isolate those with opposing views without trying to establish some shared experience of commonality and values, they are worsening the problem of social divisions. If I can’t say I truly understand the fears and concerns driving someone’s antipathy, I have not built a bridge. Understanding does not mean agreement or approval. I personally think this is a requirement of citizenship, but that’s a point for another time.

Second, communities that are formed by multiple ‘tribes’ — as most are — need to explicitly acknowledge the critical strength that diversity — of any type — provides. In biology, diversity is dynamic and strengthens ecosystems; culturally, I doubt there’s any difference. The goal isn’t necessarily homogeneity, but collaborative relationships between distinct portions of the population — however they define themselves.

Managing diversity is an operational challenge. Bemoaning the reality of diversity solves nothing, and communities need to decry any narrative that results in polarization.

Third, our country’s electorate must challenge candidates on the values that inform positions and policies. ‘Building a wall’ is a arguable as a strategy, but arguing over the strategy without understanding the fears that drive the sense that a wall is required won’t be productive.

There are many reasons to be fearful these days. But if we don’t make the small changes in our own lives to lessen the currency of fear and increase understanding, it’s hard to see how we can begin to heal the divisions and social pain we’re feeling right now.

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