The antidote of tribalism is empathy and modesty. Empathy doesn’t equal acceptance, understanding doesn’t equal conceding. Modesty and humility are not surrenders.
We are going to have to decide if we would rather have a narrative of “look what we can do together” or a narrative of “us versus them.” I do not believe it is that complicated to really understand where someone else is coming from–to understand why they think and believe the things they do. I have no illusions that if we understand someone’s perspective we will find mutually agreed upon solutions to the problems of the day. I believe we will not and should not agree on the how to solve problems. Diverse opinions bring about better solutions. However, I think we can agree upon common issues of concern and worry. The end becomes a solution that helps address the problems and concerns—the end does not become winning.
Clearly, we do not currently understand each other (as this excellent 538 article points out): Both Democrats and Republicans do not even understand who fundamentally makes up the other party. Only 9% of Democrats are agnostic or atheist; the Republicans think that number is closer to 36%. Democrats think 44% of Republicans make over 250,000 year, in reality it’s only 2%. No wonder we categorize people as us versus them when we don’t even understand who they are.
The most chilling part of the article for me was information from Pew research that suggests the alarming rate of negative partisanship–the idea that one reason people are loyal to their party is because of their hostility towards the opposing party. To quote Steven Schmidt, a long-time republican consultant “A mark of stupidity is a belief that one party is totally virtuous and correct on the issues while the other is evil and always wrong. The truth of the matter is that both of these political parties have been essential institutions not just in the country but in the history of the world.”
We are never going to learn to understand each other if we can’t even learn to talk to each other. Social media, which could be a platform for uniting people of diverse opinions, instead is increasingly becoming an echo chamber of self-affirmation. We simply disengage from those we disagree with.
I went to a local donut shop recently (don’t judge) I saw a table of older gentleman talking, clearly this is their morning gathering place. They were ethnically diverse from one another and had an age range spanning about 20 years. I’ve seen people like this gather in diners and coffee shops everywhere I’ve lived. They re-coach the game from the day before and talk about what’s going on with their families, the community and of course they talk politics. And guess what? They don’t always agree. But they still go to the same coffee shop every morning and hang out. Because their love of country and their love of each other is more important than their political differences.
The irony is we now have access to communication with thousands of people across the globe but are more isolated than ever. No question, the best way to understand and empathize with others is to talk to them face-to-face. To develop deep meaningful associations with people who see the world differently than we do.
Social networks will never be a substitute for that. They can, however, be an extension. One of my self-imposed rules of social media use is to remember and think about the person I am responding to on the other end. I think we need to also engage with people often without the intent to persuade. We should ask questions of each other where we honestly just want their opinion. If we only gain someone’s opinion so that we can attack it, naturally those people will end their interaction with us. Then we are left with the tribalistic spiral of group think. Even with the ideas that are dangerous and that we most fundamentally disagree with, we can learn to listen and understand.
David Brooks put it this way. “The temptation is simply to blast the neo-Nazis, the alt-right, the Trumpkins and the rest for being bigoted, vicious and hate-filled. And some of that is necessary. The boundaries of common decency have to be defined. But throughout history the wiser minds have understood that anger and moral posturing are not a good antidote to rage and fanaticism. Competing vitriols only build on each other. In fact, the most powerful answer to fanaticism is modesty. Modesty is an epistemology directly opposed to the conspiracy mongering mind-set. It means having the courage to understand that the world is too complicated to fit into one political belief system. It means understanding there are no easy answers or malevolent conspiracies that can explain the big political questions or the existential problems. Progress is not made by crushing some swarm of malevolent foes; it’s made by finding balance between competing truths — between freedom and security, diversity and solidarity. There’s always going to be counter-evidence and mystery. There is no final arrangement that will end conflict, just endless searching and adjustment. Modesty means having the courage to rest in anxiety and not try to quickly escape it. Modesty means being tough enough to endure the pain of uncertainty and coming to appreciate that pain. Uncertainty and anxiety throw you off the smug island of certainty and force you into the free waters of creativity and learning. As Kierkegaard put it, ‘The more original a human being is, the deeper is his anxiety’.”
Or Like Yale Law professor Stephen L.Carter says in his book Civility. “If, on the other hand, you fight your natural fight instinct, your natural tendency to use the rhetoric of silencing, and instead regard this person as one who is, in his twisted way, bringing you gifts, then you’ll defeat a dark passion and replace it with a better passion. You’ll teach the world something about you by the way you listen. You may even learn something; a person doesn’t have to be right to teach you some of the ways you are wrong.”
Each of us who claim to be patriots who love this country and are committed to the work of making a more perfect union have an obligation to do all we can to destroy the tribalism that is destroying civility. We do this through our own empathy for others and modesty in our approach. Nobody wins in a war of vitriol.