If one takes a step back from many of the individual controversies now enflaming emotions and anxieties across America, it is easy to see several endlessly repetitive ideas:
- Safety is always preferable to risk.
- Freedom is always preferable to restrictions.
- Free is always preferable to paying.
- Feelings are always preferable to facts.
Therefore, any policy or proposal that promotes restrictions, increases risk, requires payment, or denies the validity of one’s feelings must be treated with contempt—especially if it does more than one at once.
Just try, for example, to start a rational discussion about dress codes in a school or workplace, and you will quickly hear the howls of dismay that follow the notion of restricting someone’s right to express their “individuality” regardless of the situation. Today the fear that someone in a school building or campus might catch the Coronavirus has brought our nation’s educational systems to a halt, although the recent retreat by many national Democrats from total opposition to in-person K-12 instruction—Speaker Pelosi, Senator Schumer, and Governor Cuomo being the most prominent examples—is an indication that their calculations of political risks versus student safety will ultimately determine their judgements. Of course, free college, free internet, and free medical care are eternally popular despite the lack of any practicable plans for covering the expenses involved.
However—and most importantly—it is more and more the case that calls for dignity, recognition, and validation are the kryptonite killing many policy debates, and our inability to have discussions that are free of anger stymies problem solving based on data and evidence.
We’re in a bad place—both politically and culturally. To even attempt to remain calm and examine an issue dispassionately is now many times deemed an approach worthy of its own unique outrage because this is considered a mark of privilege or a micro-aggression (or perhaps a privileged micro-aggression). I never thought I would live to see the day when logic was considered oppression.
As a result, the preferred method of conflict resolution in our supposedly enlightened society is to bludgeon one another with grievances that are both highly personal and immune to reasoned discourse. Our pain and fears are our most prized possessions, and woe to anyone who attempts to wrest them from us by inflicting the violence apparently inherent in thoughtful debate.
Therefore, Americans can look at the same data and come to completely opposite conclusions.
Police shootings are either far too many or amazingly few in a diverse—and heavily armed—nation of 330 million Americans and roughly 11-14 million (no one really knows) undocumented immigrants. Coronavirus deaths are either an end-of-the-world apocalypse requiring the most extreme measures, or this is an increasingly manageable health problem that almost exclusively affects the elderly and sick. Findings regarding the dismal and disturbing educational outcomes for minority children in our nation’s public schools is evidence that more (or even just a little) academic rigor is necessary, or these persistent subject area deficiencies and weak test scores are a sure sign that systemic racism is continuing to damage the ability of students to learn. Extraordinary government action—and extraordinary government spending—is needed to save us from certain extinction due to global warming, or the relatively subtle changes in our environment are worthy of further study and moderate adjustments in order to avoid unnecessary damage to our natural world.
Many a Thanksgiving family gathering is, unsurprisingly, ruined when the conversation strays into territory beyond pumpkin pie and who gets the most comfortable chair for a nap after the feasting is done. Middle ground is as inaccessible as the moon for many today.
We would, it must be emphasized, live very dull existences in an exceedingly dull world were we not a passionate species of passionate beliefs and actions. Romance, adventure, and progress are all products of our many passions, and the collision of these has both defined and damned humanity from our earliest days. Disagreement is baked into our DNA, and it will be as long as our sun still streaks across our skies.
However, our inability to manage a dialogue that does not descend into the most awful insults is perhaps more in line with the kinds of entirely unproductive faith-based discussions of our ancestors. It is wonderful that we are no longer gathering in muddy fields to bash one another over the heads with clubs, but hurtful hashtags, deliberate provocations, rumor mongering, insulting characterizations, malicious gossip, willful misrepresentations, and plain insults a-aplenty divide our nation and our people—and create the conditions that allow some to justify the most violent and destructive speech and actions.
So where do we go from here?
Any optimism for resolutions to our many problems that I might be able to muster is blunted by reading and viewing the parallel realities daily presented on what were once known as news shows. These are now often one-sided partisan presentations that spin facts—or neglect them altogether—in order to satisfy their target audience’s hunger for comfortable moral certitude at a time when we all need to climb off our high horses and work together. I sometimes get whiplash as I switch between news sources, and the takeaway is often a sense of despair. Compromise is well nigh impossible in a democracy when an already highly polarized electorate is apparently content to believe those who hold differing beliefs or values are cretinous, evil—or both.
As we hurtle toward what is certain to be an angry and divisive run up to the November elections, I have a suggestion—likely a pointless one that few will follow—but a suggestion, nonetheless. Turn off your favorite cable news show for a week in order to watch one with an entirely different perspective, and make it a special point to seek out websites and radio chat that offers perspectives that set your teeth on edge. It is very likely that your core beliefs will not be altered in the slightest, but it may be the case that different voices will at least help you to better understand those with whom you disagree. Perhaps you will even find that a contrary viewpoint contains a kernel of truth or common sense. Even if you believe someone to be dead wrong, it is worth understanding the experiences and values that are informing their judgements.
Will this strategy heal hatreds, engender good will, and promote cooperation? Sadly, I believe it will not. The divides in our nation are too wide and deep for a group sing-along to solve all that tears at our souls, and the desire of many to win by crushing their perceived enemies, who are simply other Americans with differing perspectives that suggest other solutions, provides little room for hope.
Whichever side of an argument you choose to take, it is worth recognizing the foundations for compromise are already in place—if we are able to accept four slightly modified precepts that might help to ease our divisions:
- Freedom is wonderful, but some restrictions are necessary to create a functioning, safe, and respectful society.
- No one can live a life devoid of risk; complete safety is a damaging illusion that allows others to control us.
- Payment for services is not only sometimes required but often necessary because costs create the constraints that limit waste and produce efficiencies.
- The desire by many to ignore factual information on a whole variety of topics has produced a great deal of magical thinking that is both dangerous and counterproductive; data-based decisions might seem inhumane to some, but the alternative is a scary and shortsighted lack of adult responsibility.
I realize these tweaks to today’s occasionally unhinged discussions might strike some as annoying, condescending, or cruel, but I prefer injecting a dose of bracing reality. We can still discuss what risks are acceptable, how costs can be curtailed, and which facts are most salient, but we need to be a bit less fanciful and a lot more earthbound as we try to climb out of the calamitous hole we have created for ourselves by hiding out in our homes, focusing only on ourselves, and waiting for money to float down from the sky to support our splendid isolation from the scary world all around.
The time has come to abandon our terror of the monsters hiding under our beds, put our feet on the floor, stand up straight, change out of our pajamas, stop texting, and start living.
Get out and see the world. Observe, engage, and learn about the lives of those who have heretofore been invisible to you. Start to learn about the history of the nation where you live and the people who have played keys roles in its creation and glory.
Think. Analyze. Weigh a variety of opinions and form your own judgements—but continue to be open to new information as it becomes available. Disregard those who insist on filling your mind with formless fears and become the pilot of your own life.
And please don’t whine if you don’t get your way.
The protracted adolescence of Americans that has been the ticket to ride for several generations of feckless politicians and pop culture moneymakers has now run to its inevitable end and left us a debt-ridden nation of overgrown adolescents who are obsessed with our childish wants and petty grudges.
I am thankful for the parents who have somehow managed to nurture their children to productive adulthoods in the midst of our cultural train wreck of comic book philosophy, self-indulgent distractions, and endless dysfunctional feuds between overpaid entertainers. However, it seems each successive generation is swimming upstream against more and more cultural and political dreck, which is both unfair and frightening. Role models seem increasingly hard to find, and we see more and more young adults entering into their futures without the least idea of what adulthood entails.
As difficult as it might be with the circumstances we now face today, it is high time to stop being a child wearing an adult’s skin if that is where you now find yourself. It’s time to grow up. And fast. Party time is over. It’s time to get to work rebuilding our nation. We cannot wait any longer for anyone who is still refusing to step up and shoulder their fair share of the challenges ahead.
We need all of you.