Why Polarization is Killing What Makes America Great

I live in a rural community, which until recently I loved. Pre-COVID and pre-political polarization, my rural community was friendly, kind, and warm. I went out and regularly interacted with total strangers in meaningful ways. Compliments turned into conversations, dialogue became friendships, and connections fostered a sense of belonging. Sure I grew up here, but I have lived other places that I liked just as well. What I enjoyed about living here was the small town feel – that sense that we were all in it together.

However the polarization that has only increased since COVID (but has existed going back at least 5 years) has divided this sweet community. It turns family against each other, neighbors don’t speak and friends ghost you. It makes it harder to make real and lasting connections. “We don’t agree 100% on every issues? Oh I can’t be your friend.” It creates a climate of assumptions. Whereas before living here, it was easy to operate on the law of charity and giving people the benefit of the doubt – now we assume. And it seems to me that we always assume the worst. “You didn’t vote for Biden? You are a racist.” “You didn’t vote for Trump? You are a traitor.” “You wear a mask? You are a sheeple.” “You don’t wear a mask? Are you stupid? What about science?” It’s always the worst assumption that wins. And increasingly we live in communities that are a bubble. A bubble of echo voices encouraging us to only see the world how we want to see it and never challenging us to see the humanity in others who maybe don’t agree with us.

In the end, that’s what we all are, right? We are all people and human being. So actually we have in common more than we have different. I read once that something like 98% of all human DNA is the same and only 2% make us different. That 2% says that you are tall, short, LatinX, white, or rainbow colored or whatever. So actually the 2% is the smaller margin and the 98% is what unites us. We have more in common than we have that divides us and makes us unique. Not that our identities shouldn’t be celebrated, because I firmly believe in cultural pluralism. I just think though the focus should on how our differences make us stronger as a whole. How does all that diversity and pluralism of perspectives challenge us to be better as people instead of creating barriers for understanding between us? That is how I wish more it could be approached. But then I am an optimist.

And I got to tell you, we optimists are having a hard go of it. I don’t know about anyone else but I have had to mainline positive messaging to just make myself feel stable in this topsy-turvy existence. Polarization has done more than just divide us though – it has created opportunities for us to dehumanize each other. I say this as someone who quite frankly feels increasingly pressure to pick a side – but I don’t want to! I don’t want to pick a side. There are more than two sides to everything – that is a part of pluralism. No two people have the same human experience. We are all different in a good way. So there should be more than just two sides to everything. The problem with being forced to pick a side is that we hear people dehumanize the other side until we start to believe that they aren’t real people anymore. Both sides of this polarized existence believe, “The other side doesn’t think for themselves. They are just stupid followers who don’t know how to reason.” The problem is – that can’t be true. Here is where to me it polarization reasoning breaks down – just because someone doesn’t see it my way doesn’t mean that they haven’t thought about it or don’t have valid points. My way isn’t the only way.

Here is why though I think polarization has taken over. Americans are brought up to believe firmly in independent thinking and going “against the grain” or “leading a resistance.” When we all lived in colonial times where there were small communities and people interacted face-to-face and had to disagree more in person, it’s great to have this mentality. It’s what made us a country. In an online world though (or our modern age) where people genuinely believe that they are the star of their own reality show because they are able to have a tiktok or instagram or whatever online platform is popular, this independent and resistant to feedback type of thinking manifests a side that can create polarization. If I only want to think what I think and never want to listen to anyone except those that agree with me, then I have created my own positive feedback loop – and I have also created an opportunity to be constantly validated. I am validated for refusing to listen to others and engage in real dialogue. I am basically validated for being selfish and thinking only of myself – not of how my words or actions affect others. I think only of my own benefit and my validation. Self-love is important of course and also self-esteem and being confident. I am not taking away from any of those things. However, the logical fallacy of only thinking of myself and never thinking of how my actions affect others is that I need others. We all need others. We all need each other actually. We are a country and so we all need each other.

Personally I am constantly aware that I need others. When I go to the grocery store and buy food that I didn’t grow. When I go to the mall and buy clothes that I didn’t sew or weave. When I order random stuff on Amazon that I didn’t make or put together. When I go to Starbucks and I order a tea that someone made for me. When I go to a restaurant and get food that was prepared and served by someone else. When I go to Marshalls and someone else stocked the clothes and helps me purchase them. These are just a few obvious ways that we all need each other. But some other more personal ones are – I need my family (even if they don’t see my point of view or understand my perspective). I need my friends (even if they don’t agree with me or have different ideals). I need my community (even if we see the world through different lenses). Because no man is an island. Not even me. And I am an introvert and a loner. But I need people. And more than this, I need people who challenge me.

Because the other logical fallacy in polarization is that we can’t talk to people who disagree with us. This is fundamentally untrue. Sure maybe we won’t agree or come to the same view. Sure maybe the conversation will feel personal and heated. Sure maybe we may have to say “agree to disagree” or we might feel frustrated. But we can talk to them, if we choose, it’s all about how we choose to talk with them. I heard a podcast recently that talked about “Calling people in” rather than “calling them out.” Calling in is about offering people kindness, grace and the benefit of the doubt. Calling people in allows both persons involved to show their humanity and offer love instead of hate. I love this approach. We are all people and so we all should be treated with kindness and respect. Because one thing I believe fundamentally is that how we treat others is not a reflection of their treatment of us, but a reflection of our character. How we treat others says everything about us and nothing about how we were treated. We should behave with integrity no matter the situation. Now am I challenged there? Heck ya! I mean just to today my patience was really tested when I got hung up on multiple times when calling the same government office. But I choose to breathe and refocus and try to be kind and understanding. I guess the other thing about dehumanizing someone is that it doesn’t give us a chance to understand their story and why they see life different than we do. We miss out on the thing we all need: human connection.

It’s easy to be cynical in this world, but positive and hopeful is the better way. Let’s not give up on each other or give up on our country or our community. Let’s choose to be a part of change and better things rather than argue out our differences. That is what I want to choose. I want to choose connection and relationships and compromise and lasting change. Will those things maybe be easy? Nothing good was ever easy. Does it mean we don’t hold people accountable? No, of course not. But we got to pick our battles so we don’t end up dying on a hill that ain’t worth it. You know what I mean? We got to keep our eye on the long game – not on improvised temporary – but on real, meaningful and lasting solutions to the issues we all face now. And for that, whether we like it or not, we need each other and we will need to work together.

That’s all for today!

Sending out love and warmth from the Sunshine State – Lady M.