Now that the elections are over and the holidays are upon us, we might hope for a small reduction in political acrimony and a small increase in peace and quiet. The former is a vain hope, but there are personal strategies that can increase chances of the latter.
To understand why there won’t be any letup in political acrimony, we can turn to two of the most important motivators of human behavior: money and self-esteem. At least four groups of people collect huge dividends of both from political acrimony.
First, news organizations. Conflicts and crises attract a larger audience and greater advertising revenue. Thus, every cause of disagreement must be an “outrage,” every hiccup a “crisis,” every lunatic a trustworthy representative of an entire political party and perhaps even a broad swath of the U.S. citizenry.
This sort of rhetoric not only pays financial dividends to news organizations, but also serves an important function for reporters. Just telling the rest of us what actually happened seems so dreary. If what actually happened isn’t important, then perhaps just reporting it isn’t important — and by extension, perhaps journalists aren’t important. This train of thought explains why reporters make their news stories about themselves and their hopes and dreams for a better world.
Their behavior is based on false assumptions, of course. Just telling us what actually happened is vitally important, in part because when an event occurs we often don’t know what’s ultimately going to be important, or to whom.
The second group that benefits from political acrimony consists of politicians and fundraisers. Campaigns increasingly are built on the negative features of the opposition rather than the positive proposals of the candidate. You have to love the politicians who portray the opposition as the spawn of Satan and then brag about their ability to work across the aisle on bipartisan legislation. Who wants to vote for someone who cuts bipartisan deals with the spawn of Satan?
Fundraisers whip up enthusiasm among donors by portraying every turn of events as a grave threat to [fill in the blank].
The third group of agitators is countries that do not wish America well. Unfortunately, postings by their operatives on social media can be hard to distinguish from postings by the fourth group — people who simply have too much time on their hands and derive self-esteem from bashing other people.
Social media deserves much of the blame for facilitating these last two groups. Thankfully, there’s been some satisfaction recently in seeing multi-billionaire CEOs hauled before Congress and presented with the unpleasant choice of admitting that when it comes to enabling the broad dissemination of hateful speech they are either complicit or clueless. You can do your part by not supporting them.
So how can the average person who is just trying to get through life respond to this toxic environment?
First, don’t contribute to it.
Second, I offer a tip passed on to me by my older sister who, for years, was a New Testament professor at Baylor University. She viewed individuals in my profession (health economists) with amazement (and a little disdain, I think) because we agree on so much. She would go to her professional meetings, where the participants went to the mat over the proper translation of one word in 2 Corinthians.
But she offered the following rules of engagement. When approached by someone, personally or through the media, who wants to use you as a sounding board for their erudite criticism of the opposition, respond as follows:
“I am very interested in your opinions and why you hold them. I ask only one thing in advance. Please state your opponent’s views in terms that your opponent would agree represents a fair characterization of their position.”
If they refuse, then politely excuse yourself, or switch to another website, TV station or publication.
I’ve heard other versions of this advice, including, “Please state the strongest point in favor of your opponent’s position and the weakest point in favor of your position.” But if the objective is peace and quiet, I think my sister’s version is better, or at least buys you more time.
First, your would-be lecturer will need to find someone representing the opposition. (Remember to exclude yourself from the list of candidates, pleading ignorance if necessary.) Given the bubbles of like-minded people most of us inhabit, finding someone in the opposing camp could take months or even years. With luck, they may give up entirely.
Second, they will have to listen carefully to the person in the opposing camp who holds the key to their continued conversation with you. That conversation could be unpleasant for the two parties (though not for you) but confer enormous potential spillover benefits on our social fabric.
If you listen to the media from any side of any aisle, you may have been persuaded that hating your fellow Americans is a good and joyful thing, perhaps even your civic duty. If so, it’s time to head for your bathroom, look in the mirror and ask, “Am I really that stupid and easily manipulated?”
All U.S. citizens, including all races, religions, incomes and identities, possess something for which quite a few people around the globe happily would dismember us to obtain: our U.S. citizenship. The reasons they envy us are the things we share in common, including our ability to engage in serious, respectful and productive disagreement. And the things we share in common are more important than any issue on which the people who profit from our disagreements will try to use to divide us.
Pursuing my sister’s strategy may not bring us the peace on Earth that most of us hope for, but it could bring help to ratchet down the rhetoric. In this holiday season, that seems like a pretty attractive consolation prize. Happy Holidays!
Bryan Dowd is a professor in the Division of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota (firstname.lastname@example.org).