Not every debate needs to lead to war
If I were asked to summarize the past decade of news, media, and interpersonal interactions in word, I would probably use the word polarization. It is hard to point out when this began, but since the US elections of 2016, it became clear how two groups of people can look at the same news, and walk away with completely opposite interpretations or reactions. As the end of 2020 approaches, this sharp division in our lives and thoughts has become more visible than ever before. Maybe social media, with its claims of personalizing content and its propensity for publicizing sensational content, is partly to blame. However, all of us need to be watchful and take necessary steps to not contribute further to the environment of divisiveness and mutual distrust.
What am I referring to? We have all seen it. Person A shares an article. Person B comments about how only racist, sexist sycophants of dictatorial monsters would ever share said article. That everything in this article has already been refuted by a team of scholars who surely know better, and that it is embarrassing to see people still believe in this drivel. Person A responds that they did not expect anything better from a godless, amoral heathen who believes that the government should pay lazy people to sit at home, do nothing, and corrupt society. A few hours later, both parties have brought in friends to support their side of the argument, a lot of unkind words have been used, and some relationships have ended in blocking each other on social media and coldly tolerating each other in person when it cannot be avoided.
I myself have been guilty of this more often than I would like to admit. I do have to admit, it is addictive and simple. It is much easier to attach a label and paint in broad strokes, deciding that anyone who does not feel the same way as me has never read a book, never loved someone, and probably burns puppies for fun every evening. It is far harder to consider that this person who disagrees with me on one thing, probably agrees with me on a dozen others. That even for this one thing, they probably have done some research and formed an opinion. They may not have read the same sources I did, there may have been substantially different life experiences that led them to their opinions, but it is not fair to assume that they are intellectually or morally lacking. More to the point, it will not help us understand each other better.
Let me step back a bit here. I do not believe that anyone is under any obligation to try and empathize with someone advocating genocide, hate crime, or the curtailing of human rights for others due to their identity or lifestyle choices. However, there is definitely a spectrum of disagreement, and not all disagreement has to be judged as stemming from prejudice or ignorance. It would be far more helpful to ask questions than to pass judgements. Why do they feel high taxes are unfair? What are their concerns about how social services might be misused? Would they still feel the same way if they were part of a different demographic group? Is there a compromise between social welfare and free economy they can envision approving of? Who knows, after answering all these questions, one party might end up realizing that the other side makes more sense! At the very least, it is infinitely more respectful than words like “capitalist agenda” and “communist propaganda”.
I do not live in some ivory tower overlooking a calm blue river where birds chirp all day long. I know that there are definitely going to be irreconcilable differences between people from time to time. There are definitely opinions people have that are completely indefensible in this day and age. Even in those cases though, I think it helps to ask ourselves, if a grown adult who must function in the world still holds these opinions, is there anything I can say in a typical social media conversation that will suddenly make them turn around and acknowledge the errors of their current worldview? If not, and I am very confident that any such attempts are bound to be futile, maybe it is better to part ways or minimize interactions without first spending one evening of our lives posting mean things to each other. The serenity to accept the things we cannot change etc. You may not preserve a relationship, you will definitely miss the perverse pleasure of engaging in a brutal battle of words where you get to call someone different synonyms of bigot, but over time, you will definitely preserve your sanity. As someone who has been guilty of spending many hours trying to get people to either change their opinions or own up to being prejudiced, it’s not going to happen. Put down your phone, logout from your account, and read a book. Maybe have some tea.
It is not clear through whose fault, but the world is more polarized than ever. We are still living through what is probably the biggest global crisis we will see in our lifetimes. It would go a long way towards bridging gaps if we, wherever possible, focused on what unites us, not what divides us. When there is simply nothing that can help us build a bridge, we then owe it to ourselves to turn around and walk away. Life is stressful enough. Think of your energy and time as finite, because they are. The less of these you devote to things that leave you drained and hurting, the more there is to spend on things that spark joy. As this year wraps up, we can all certainly use a little more joy.
The writer is a PhD student and a lover of fountain pens