Staying informed requires that we do more than exchange views with the smart people – you know, the people who agree with you. Indeed, much more important is that we listen to the people who do not agree with us and hear what they have to say – actually seek to understand. Often that is less comfortable than being validated by those aforementioned smart people who agree with us, but we have to listen to all views if we are to learn anything.
And so it was with great pain that I watched a piece on Fox News with Suzanne Venker telling me that boys and girls are different and that women are either less than men or should act that way, so, honey, get back in the kitchen. Okay, she didn’t say the kitchen part. She does, however, seem to subscribe to the same attitude modeled by Gov. Huckabee (included in her interview video) of women as “other” creatures and needing the protection of men. It’s a “ women as less-than,” paternalistic worldview.
This seems to be yet another piece of retro thinking, the kind of simplistic, anachronistic attitude that has brought us self-justified science deniers, religious extremists, fiscal rejectionists and white supremacists. Come to think of it, that kind of fundamentalist polarization is reminiscent of Islamic fundamentalists. You know, the guys who strap bombs to their kids and send them into restaurants to blow themselves up, all in the comfort of religious justification; the people who learn to fly an airplane but not to land it, so they can suicidally/homicidally fly it into a tall office building and kill lots of people to promote their notion of justice; the butchers who mutilate and kill their own people in the name of Allah.
Wait – Americans are like Muslim fundamentalists? Well, how would you characterize us when President Obama receives over 30 death threats per day – from Americans?
The head scratcher for me is not that we Americans are impassioned or that we disagree with one another. From the time of the Articles of Confederation we’ve always had disagreements and will continue to do so. A case can be made that we are better for our disagreeing. What is curious is how we came to the point where we just shout at one another and don’t listen at all. We have made this a country of self-righteous, “my way or the highway” attitudes.
Us-Them is now the flesh searing brand on the American brain. If that is to change for the better, we have to figure out how we became this dysfunctional. Exactly when did fear and hate take over as the official attitude of American culture?
Recently, I attended a talk by Jim Kenney, co-founder of Common Ground, and I asked him what he thought was behind our fundamentalist, absolutist fervor. He’s a well-educated, well-informed guy and he answered without hesitation that the primary cause is The Big Lie.
That’s “Big Lie” as in Josef Goebbels-type propaganda. It’s about a program of disinformation, telling the lie over and over until people believe what you want them to believe, like calling our president a Muslim or a Kenyan, like dividing Americans into creators and takers, like saying that people of color are not like “us” and, the ultimate, that those who don’t believe in God exactly as you do are doomed: there is neither god nor heaven for them. There are millions of people persuaded by such messages and they eventually carry them and justify their resulting hatred with their fundamentalist fervor. They think they are bedrock right.
Presidents Nixon and Bush II both promoted an us-them attitude by overtly saying that you’re either with us (meaning their administrations) or you’re against us. Bush told us that you either supported the Patriot Act as originally written, including the illegal wiretapping, illegal search and seizure, perpetual detention without charges or trial (the end of habeas corpus) and illegal CIA investigations of Americans in America, or you were unpatriotic.
You can hear Big Lies any time, as they are pounded through the airwaves and online in a nonstop parade of vilification, fear and hatred. The repetition somehow creates an altered perceived reality for many and the divisiveness is expanded. Daniel Gardner’s book The Science of Fear will help you to understand just how easy it is to manipulate people.
Those manipulated by The Big Lie think they are adhering to fundamental truth, but maybe they’re just terrorists, like the thirty nut jobs who threaten the life of our president every day. We can’t let them win, because if they do, America loses.
The way out of this national polarization is not through hitting back with frenzied counter-hatred. It is through seeing those with whom we disagree as opponents, not as enemies and it surely doesn’t mean seeing them as less than.
So, the next time you hear someone saying things you passionately disagree with, observe where you go with your reaction. Are you having an amygdala moment of fear response? Do you instantly judge and dismiss the other person in some way, labeling them with disparaging adjectives and nouns?
Not much will get a lot better until we stop vilifying one another and start listening to someone other than the Big Liars.
Copyright 2019 by Jack Altschuler
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