Friday, July 10, 2009

Can't we all just get along?

Many years ago, I had a conversation with a woman that touched on the topic of abortion. We had already discovered that we were both firmly pro-choice on the issue, when I mentioned that I opposed public funding -- not because of anything specific to abortion itself, but because I think government screws things up when it gets involved in health care. Well, forget the previous half-hour of agreement on an intensely contentious matter of public policy; red-faced and teary-eyed, she was out for blood. If we weren't 100% in agreement, we were enemies.

A few years earlier, I was a volunteer on a state assembly campaign in New York. An older staffer (in retrospect, he was probably all of 35) was driving two of us volunteers back home from an event, when we started chatting about drug policy. It turned out that both the other volunteer and I favored legalization.

The driver damned near stopped the car to kick us both out.

Never mind that we were all working for the same candidate, who appeared poised to win (he did -- and proved as useless as the rest of them. Having moved on to politically connected jobs, he's not part of the current Albany spectacle), this guy wanted to declare war against us over one issue that didn't even feature in the campaign.

Emphasizing disagreement over agreement isn't uncommon. People are tribal and tend to view one another with suspicion. We look for small differences and then exaggerate their importance instead of looking for points of agreement and working together toward common goals -- or at least tolerating disagreements.

That's troubling enough, but the problem goes further. We also tend to notice differences in ourselves that set us apart from our chosen tribe, and then we expunge those differences. Over time, we make ourselves become more like the people with whom we want to be associated.

According to, a social networking analysis outfit founded by Valdis Krebs, for the first time ever, there was no overlap at all during the last election cycle among books read by liberals and books read by conservatives.

That makes conversation a little more challenging.

The self-tailoring extends beyond ideology to lifestyles that become associated with certain sets of beliefs, report Bill Bishop and Robert G. Cushing in their book, The Big Sort. When people choose neighborhoods where they feel comfortable, the settings come with a prevailing ideology pre-installed. Say Bishop and Cushing in their book, "ways of life now have a distinct politics and a distinct geography. Feminist synchronized swimmers belong to one political party and live over here, and calf ropers belong to another party andlive over there."

Surrounded, as they are, by people who share their beliefs, people become more like their neighbors, dumping attitudes that might set them apart, radicalizing their own views, and shunning "heretics" -- just like the more-progressive-than-thou denizens of Mike Judge's spot-on The Goode Family.

Given our tendency to transform ourselves into ever-more-extreme versions of what we think we ought to be, it's no surprise that political conversations can degenerate into trench warfare over small points of disagreement, leaving large areas of potential cooperation neglected.

But if the trend continues --and it has accelerated in recent years -- we're looking at life in a world dominated by combat between monolithic rival camps that have chosen to have nothing in common, instead of negotiation among individuals looking for points of agreement.

Given the vast power that has accrued to government in recent decades, that doesn't just bode poorly for the tone of debates. It suggests a sort of political total war in the offing, with the power of the state in all its intrusiveness used as a bludgeon against the opposition by whoever currently holds the reins of power. That's quite a prospect when friends and enemies can be identified by their clothing choices and their taste in music.

Won't that be fun? Oh wait -- it already isn't.



Blogger David Settino Scott, II said...

Although, I personally am so far to the left that even the democrats appear to me to be "right-wing," I consider myself to be a strict constitutionalist. It is my opinion that since its inception there has been an organized and systematic assault by the conservatives in the United States on the civil liberties written into the US Constitution. The “War on Drugs”; “War on Terror”; “War on Communism” and a host of other wars waged by the right wing are really nothing more than a War on People--an excuse to erode civil rights to the point of non-existence. I invite you to my website devoted to raising awareness on this puritan attack on freedom:

July 12, 2009 1:25 PM  

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