I’m going to write an observation I deeply wish I didn’t have to write.
Two years or so ago, I did an episode of Faith Works Live, the radio show I’m a guest on weekly, on “talking to people we disagree with.” During that show, I mentioned this:
Over the course of my life, I have had the opportunity to get to know and have some serious conversations with several people who grew up in or spent significant amounts of time living with, people on “both sides” of the divides in some of the most notoriously, violently divided nations and communities in the world, places where deep division led or still leads to ongoing violence.
These places are Northern Ireland in the 80s and early 90s, Israel/Palestine, and Apartheid South Africa.
Through these conversations, two things stood out to me about such places and the divisions they suffer:
The first observation is how people on different sides of the divide had such radically different perceptions of the same situations, people, and events that they could have been talking about different worlds.
I remember comparing conversations where, if you had removed the names of individuals and places, no outside observer would ever guess that the two people spoke about the same event.
None of the people I spoke with were fanatical partisans of a specific political cause. They were just ordinary people immersed in a particular community, but the “interpretive grid” that the different communities viewed their experiences through was so strong. The differences between the biases of their primary news sources and their fixed pre-commitments were so powerful that even people who had not grown up in and been shaped by those communities, but merely lived there for a year or so, interpreted an event so differently that their descriptions of the same situation or event were barely recognizable as describing the same thing.
My second observation is how such societies had developed parallel institutions along the political/cultural divide so thoroughly that people who lived literally alongside people on the other side of the divide nonetheless never actually had (or even had much opportunity) to interact with anyone from the other side.
Even in Northern Ireland – where there is no visible racial division between Catholics and Protestants, Unionist and Nationalist, where “both sides” speak the same language and share a great deal of the same cultural habits – the divide was (and to some extent still is) far more than people worshipping in different churches and supporting different political parties. Catholics and Protestants had their own schools, their own sports teams, their own clubs, and social institutions.
Businesses were known to be part of one community or the other. People could, quite literally, live next door to each other in the same town, but to interact meaningfully and make friends with a member of the other community would not only not happen naturally, but require deliberate, socially difficult effort.
I’m sure I don’t need to explain in great detail why both these situations deepen division, enable hatred, and make it harder to solve the problems of a divided society. When perceptions are so radically divided, it’s almost impossible to have a meaningful discussion of the events around you, when such conversations are more likely to deepen prejudices than overcome them. When the members of each community rarely, if ever, encounter each other in everyday life, it’s so easy for prejudices and stereotypes to deepen and deepen. As a result, the other side becomes just “Them,” a dehumanized mass of people who oppose everything you believe. And when that happens, it’s so much easier to justify violence and extremism.
And again, to state the obvious, I see both these things happening more and more in the USA over the 14 years I’ve been here.
Americans are more and more withdrawing into their ideological bubbles. As neutral spaces seem to become politicized, sucked into our “Culture War,” institutions, groups, and hobbies that would seem to have no reason to be political become associated with one side or the other.
In the 14 years, I’ve been in the USA, I’ve seen more and more people effectively give up on attempting to reach across the cultural divide, admitting that they deliberately avoid interacting with people on the other side – or, in the last few years, boasting of it… Over the last ten years, numerous studies have found Americans are even beginning to segregate geographically, choosing where they live based on political culture.
A friend recently observed that COVID-19 accelerated the move to remote working, which will probably increase this, as Right/Conservative Americans will find it even easier to live in small-towns and the outer suburbs and avoid Left/Progressive cities. Personally, I find that prospect frightening. The necessity of working together, and the economic pull of the large city, has been one of the few things forcing rural and urban Americans to interact with each other. Remote working will make it easier for people to never really reveal their beliefs to each other, furthering suspicion and alienation.
I have watched it happen in my social media feeds, in a horribly obvious way. For instance, take the shootings during the recent riots in Kenosha, Wisc. What has been most alarming to me about the competing narratives over the shootings is not that people disagree; it’s that the passage of time and more information didn’t produce more cautious or complex interpretations, but less, as competing politicized narratives pushed out peoples initial, personal reactions.
When the first reports came out, there were, of course, different reactions. In my Facebook feed (which, by my deliberate choice, reflects a pretty wide variety of political, social, and religious beliefs), many on the Right/Conservative side were willing to call the events a tragedy, question whether a 17-year-old is an appropriate person to take on the responsibility of the armed defense of property, and wonder whether even if some, if not all, of his shots were justified. And those on the Left/Progressive side were at least willing to call it a tragedy, mourn that a 17-year-old had committed murder, and say he was stupid rather than utterly evil.
Now, just a few days later, almost every post or share I see fits into one of two completely contrasting, completely morally certain stories:
In one, Kyle Rittenhouse is a vicious killer, a Far-Right White Supremacist militia member who drove from another state to pose with his rifle, hoping to be able to shoot protesters for racial justice, who shot and murdered a completely innocent man and then killed another, and seriously wounded another, of a group of heroic people who risked their lives to attempt to tackle and stop a killer.
In the other, Kyle Rittenhouse is a hero, a selfless, community-minded kid who volunteered to drive to a neighboring town to help protect the property of a business he knew from a lawless mob bent on destruction, who was attacked by multiple criminals and only fired in self-defense to protect himself from being beaten to death.
Neither story allows room for any nuance, for any possibility of foolishness or mistakes on any side, for the possibility that people who are not seeking to do evil can make disastrous decisions. Neither story allows for the option that its entirely possible, in the real world, to have situations in which there are no “good guys” and no deliberate villains. Instead, both stories – and everything that followed the events of that night – are fitted into a pre-determined narrative with set heroes and villains.
This is not seeking to find the truth; it is tribal story-telling.
We are treading a dangerous path.