When I first started reporting politics, I worked on a daily show covering the West Virginia Legislature. My favorite compliments were when republicans would thank me for coverage of a story and “seeing it their way.” Only to be followed by democrats thanking me for coverage of the same story and “taking their side.” I found it ironic that two parties could see the same piece and each think it was tilted in their favor. The reality is that reality is rooted in the beholder. We see things as we want to.
Since 2018 I’ve become frustrated with the growing nastiness of politics. Initially, I was angry with strangers in line at the bank or drugstore who could just as easily spew jaw-dropping racism against immigrants as heart-ripping sectarianism against conservatives. Both of the seeming opinion that they were justified in their rants and anyone who didn’t agree should “drop dead”. This was not the country I grew up in; this name-calling, this hurtfulness, this bullying, and downright meanness. I was convinced visceral evil had taken root in the communities and country I love. This is NOT us. We are NOT those people. I know many people on both sides of the aisle, as well as those who claim no aisle, were and still are very angry. Just like my legislative reporting, everyone sees the events of recent political history their own way and therefore is justified in their feelings.
The philosophy that we always have three choices: accept a situation and live with the consequences, reject the circumstance and ignore (or walk away), or work to change the circumstance has always rung true for me. I’ve never been one to quietly go along. I usually choose to change something. But this thing, this growing anger and frustration in our country isn’t something one person can change. But it is something we can begin to understand. By understanding, we grow. That just might lead to a better place.
A book called The Righteous Mind; Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion, by Johnathan Haidt, is a great place to start. It’s a bit intellectual, but well worth the read. If you’re someone who needs to understand why things are the way they are, I highly recommend it. Be aware it is nonpartisan and you may learn some things about yourself, you don’t particularly like. But Haidt does a wonderful job of explaining some of the underlying reasons we behave the way we do, where morals come from (I’ll give you a hint, it’s not your grandparents), and strategies for not only better understanding each other but getting along.
I can’t give a full book report here, but I’ll give one concept he uses to build a foundation of understanding. Haidt explains that our brains make emotional judgements much quicker than they reason. We all make nearly instantaneous gut-level decisions about things we see and hear. In fact, we do it so quickly that we’re not aware we’re doing it. About 255 milliseconds later our rational or thinking brain catches up and immediately starts forming reasons to justify the way we feel. It’s a kind of lie we tell ourselves, to preserve our gut instincts. Why should this matter in politics? It matters because no matter how sophisticated we think we are, we’re making decisions based on emotions, not facts. We formulate the facts to fit what our emotions are already telling us. That’s important because it means that no amount of fact-based justification or arguing or debating is going to sway a liberal to become conservative or a conservative to become liberal. We can’t logic each other away. If anything, insisting I’m right and you’re wrong just hammers the nail of emotion in deeper, so we cling more fervently to our initial emotion. Haidt argues that it’s a waste of time. Fights are ruled by emotions not brains. There are cases of people becoming more centrist in their views as they age or a spouse switching views to be with a partner. However, those were not reasoned decisions either, they were based on experienced emotion, which reasoning justified.
Haidt argues that the anecdote to emotion is empathy. Not the, “I see what you’re saying but…” rather taking the time to really experience something from another person’s point of view. That can’t happen when the walls of defense are so high that we want to impose our point of view on another and insist on our rightness. It happens when we let our guards’ down. Suspend our beliefs long enough to not only hear what another person has to say, but listen to their story. And ask ourselves what we might feel in that same position?
Holding a townhall (such as Politically Speaking’s May 1, 2019 Townhall) is one way to let our guards down and see things from others’ points of view. If we can start with the premise that we all want what’s best for our communities, and accept that we have different ideas of how to get there, we make a very good start at finding ways to get along and restore the kindness and courtesy that both sides of the aisle not only have been missing but deserve.