I’m going to kick this off with a couple of base assumptions.
1. Any plan that necessitates the mass slaughter of human beings is a bad, undesirable plan.
I hope this feels like an obvious, unnecessary thing to say. We’ll come back to this in a minute.
2. People believe that what they are doing is good and right.
On the balance, people view themselves as the protagonist. Not all the time, unless you’re a narcissist; we all make mistakes. Think, though, about how painful it is to admit even small mistakes. Think about the last time you bumped into someone. Chances are, part of you attempted to justify it to yourself immediately. The other person wasn’t paying attention. Walking too slow or too fast, on the wrong side of the walkway, taking up too much room. Why didn’t they just ___? Even if you ultimately decided it was your fault, not theirs, the justification monologue happens immediately. It’s automatic.
We’re wired to believe that we’re right. One of the main functions of our brains is to make sense of the world by creating a constant narrative of events in which we are, on the balance, good and deserving. Anyone who has ever struggled with depression can tell you how awful it is when this mechanism starts to malfunction. Uncertainty over whether you’re an overall decent person is so unbearable for humans that it kills up to a million of them every year.
Politics are no different. There are no cartoon supervillains out there. No one wants to destroy the environment for the sake of fiendish cackling; no one’s impoverishing the already-struggling because it’s funny when kids can’t afford healthcare. With the possible exception of the rare psychopath, people advocate for politics that they believe will make life better for themselves and the people they perceive as being on their team. People choose bad, too-narrow teams (White people only! Investment bankers!), and people choose terrible and counterproductive solutions without worrying about the effect those policies will have on people not on their team. From their perspective, however, these policies are just and right. Their team is the best, most deserving team, and it’s right and just to nurture and protect that team.
People are tribal, and they hate being wrong. This is bad news, but it is also good news.
3. If you can convince someone that what they’re doing is wrong, they will stop doing the thing.
Because we are so invested in our own protagonist narratives, anything that disrupts that narrative means we have to either change or die. No one can truly, deep-down believe that they’re a bad person and live for long.
If that’s true, and if it’s true that people do what they think is best for their team, we all have two levers that can work to fundamentally change someone else’s narrative. We can try to persuade the other person that their course of action actually hurts their team. Or, more subtly, we can try to change their conception of team. I don’t think it’s possible to truly erase the team, the tribe, from humanity. We can, however, expand it. The more people we perceive as human, as worthy, as like us, as same rather than other, the more people our solutions have to take into account. Solutions change radically when teams change.
Unfortunately, because we’re so invested in that narrative of ourselves as good, it’s really, really hard to disrupt that narrative. If I’ve invested a great deal of time and energy in advocating for something that’s ultimately wrong, accepting the wrongness of that thing means accepting that I’ve done wrong. I wasn’t the protagonist: I was the bad guy. This is a really bad feeling! It’s one most of us try to avoid at any cost even for minor things. Imagine realizing that you’ve advocated something horrible for years.
The more committed someone is to their ideology, the more energy they’ve put into advancing it, the harder it is to do. Maybe, at some point, it becomes impossible. And some people choose to go through life without examining things. They are also impossible to reach.
Some people can be reached.
It’s hard to tell who’s who at first glance.
This has to be true. If it isn’t, we’re fucked. In the last American election, almost 63 million people voted for Trump and almost 66 million people voted for Clinton. Chances are, you find one of those choices fucking unconscionable–I do. Here’s the situation: there are a lot of people who believe all liberals are evil and beyond reason, a lot of people who believe all conservatives are evil and beyond reason, and there’s no convenient regional divide between the two. Polarization has been on the rise since the late 90s. Within my lifetime we’ve gone from “don’t discuss religion and politics with friends” to shaming, call-out culture, and people who refuse to even speak to someone who votes for the wrong candidate.
Can we go on like this? Maybe you’re already dismissing me as a neoliberal shill or an SJW snowflake, but for a moment, really ask yourself: does anything about the current political climate feel sustainable to you. Can we go on like this for any real length of time? Gridlock in Congress, protests and counter-protests growing ever more furious and violent, overt racism on the rise, college campuses shut down by ultra left protest, escalating international tension, actual Nazis walking around in public?
Something has to give.
America is itself a kind of team—a large team, a nation. It only works if we actually feel that way, though. We have to believe we’re one unit, we have to have the same worldview, the same culture, the same facts, to function. Every day we move farther away from this. It cannot last.
What happens from here? One historically popular way of fixing these kind of seemingly bone-deep differences has been to get rid of the Other. When the Other doesn’t want to be got rid of, things get violent, one way or another, eventually.
I don’t see anyone volunteering to leave.
4. When there is disagreement, dialogue, persuasion, and compromise are the only ways to avoid violence.
Any plan that necessitates the mass slaughter of human beings is a bad, undesirable plan. We agreed on this, right?
There are a lot of ways a broken country can solve its problems, but only through dialogue and persuasion can we come together without violence. The emotional labor of dialogue is frustrating, it’s exhausting, it sucks, and it doesn’t always work. It might not work this time. There is, however, no other way to fix things that doesn’t eventually involve war or death on a massive, hideous scale. That fact makes it worth trying until the bitter end.
Things cannot go on the way they are in America. The left and the right consume different news stories. They believe radically different things about the world. They have radically different visions of the future, and most importantly, they believe that the vision held by the other side will lead to death and ruin. At what point does violence become the answer? On our current trajectory, my prediction is: soon. My prediction is civil war within 15 years.
Does this sound insane? Historically, war has always sounded a bit mad right up until it happens. Historically, our peaceful and materially opulent culture is a crazy anomaly. Two years ago, it sounded insane that Donald Trump could be president of the United States of America, and that’s true no matter what you believe politically or who you voted for. Here we fucking are though.
We have to talk to each other. We have to. But there are so many factors standing in the way of that. Social media algorithms feed people different versions of the world. The Internet has introduce a variety of linguistic shortcuts that allow us to dismiss the humanity of others without explicitly justifying doing so. Economic, cultural, and social pressures act to prevent us not only from talking to each other, but from seeing and understanding the separate worlds we inhabit.
This blog is about our shared humanity, all of us, yes, even the people you hate, yes, even them.
It’s about working towards a shared understanding of the world, if such a thing is possible any longer.
I don’t know what else to do.