” … this is why we will never unite as a country …”
This was the response to a meme posted by one of my social media connections who wished to highlight what she saw as the racism and bigotry demonstrated by Donald Trump. The response to that post was that Trump is not a racist and, therefor, the meme had gotten it all wrong—and, of course, the person who posted it had also gotten it all wrong as well.
Of course, just about every meme ever created oversimplifies every issue on the planet. Memes in general are silly and stupid and useless, generally doing little to advance the conversation but doing much to inflame opinions.
But that’s not what this post is about today.
I’m absorbed by the “this is why we will never unite as a country” line.
Because I see comments like this all the time.
At bottom, what this means is “We will never unite as a country because you’re wrong and I’m right.”
What this means is “Your opinion is stupid. Your thinking is all wrong. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Only I and people who think like me are smart and right and educated about the issues.”
What this means is “Until you see things as I see them, we will never come together.” What this means is “Unless you come over to my side, we will never unite as a country.”
While Americans across the country are lamenting the enormous chasm that separates our politics, many Americans also are calling for all of us to unite. Or, rather, we are shouting at each other, demanding that we unite—apparently under one point of view. We yell and scream and snark at each other. We call each other names. We insult each other. We demean each other. We mock each other. And then we bemoan the fact that we are not united.
Because that makes sense.
Why wouldn’t we want to come over to the side of the person who is calling us stupid idiots? Why wouldn’t we want to listen to the ideas put forth by the people who are calling us asshats? Why wouldn’t we want to engage in conversation with people who call us liars and fools?
Communications 101: Fail
Persuasion 101: Fail
Demanding that we unite is useless. People have different opinions. It’s important that we have different opinions. In many ways, those differing opinions are what is at the heart of our system of checks and balances. Without differing opinions, we could all too easily become a one-party system that leans toward authoritarianism. Without differing opinions, we would have nothing to discuss or debate—and it’s important to discuss and debate the issues.
But demanding that we unite over those issues is useless.
Demanding. Ordering. Requiring. Forcing.
That just puts our backs up.
Demanding that we unite just makes us entrench deeper. It makes us fight harder. It makes us stop listening. It makes us shut down. And so we keep shouting at each other.
You know how people talk even louder when they realize they’re speaking to someone who doesn’t speak English? You find yourself engaged in a conversation with, say, a foreign traveler who needs directions. You don’t switch to Spanish or French or Chinese or whatever language the traveler speaks (because, as Americans, most of us are too arrogant to bother to learn another language—but that’s a different matter). Instead, you start hollering in English, as though speaking more loudly will help the foreigner understand.
That’s what we’re doing to each other when it comes to politics. We’re hollering at each other in different languages, ratcheting up the volume to eleven because we’re not being understood. Republicans don’t understand Democratese. Liberals don’t speak conservativese. And so we keep shouting at each other, our voices getting louder and louder, our tone getting meaner and meaner, our messaging getting more and more lost.
We demand that the other side listen to us. We demand that the other side come over to ours, that we unite in a common purpose. But we don’t speak their language when we make those demands.
And so we start shouting. And as we become more frustrated, we start belittling the other side because they don’t understand us. Their lack of understanding is their own damn fault. It’s not that we’re not trying to speak their language. It’s not that we’re not trying to discuss the issue in terms they would understand. It’s not that we’re not doing everything we can to tell them what’s what. It’s that they don’t understand. Because they’re stupid idiots.
We demand that our political foes come over to our side, and our political foes shut down and stop listening. We can’t make ourselves understood to our political foes and so we start shouting, and our political foes stop listening. We can’t make ourselves heard even when we shout and so we resort to calling each other names, and our political foes stop listening. We can’t believe that our political foes aren’t succumbing to our obvious powers of persuasion and so we shout even louder, scream in even uglier terms, and start making demands. And then we wonder why we’re not getting anywhere.
Comprehension 101: Fail
Manners 101: Fail
This is why we will never unite as a country.
We are a polarized country when it comes to politics. We feed in our own echo chambers and consume only the “news” we already believe to be true. We spew opinions in the foulest language. And that’s a problem.
But we also don’t listen to each other. We don’t give any weight to other points of view. We don’t speak each other’s language—and, what’s worse, is that we don’t even try to.
We decry the polarization while at the same time demanding that we unite.
Unity is overrated.
There is no reason we all need to believe the same things. What we really need is to respect differing opinions. What we really need is to be able to discuss differing opinions like we’re actually the grown-ups in the room. What we really need is to learn how to speak each other’s language. And then we need to simmer down, listen to each other, and try to understand each other.
Unless and until we bother to at least try to hear the other side, unless and until we try to understand the other side, unless and until we try to speak each other’s language, unless and until we stop making demands, we will never unite as a country.
Shouting on social media is doing little to advance the political discourse in America. In fact, it’s turning us into a nation of ill-informed, opinionated political extremists. But that doesn’t mean that each of us couldn’t do more to stop shouting and start listening. Social media seems like a good place to start, but an even better idea might be to—oh, I don’t know—actually have a face-to-face conversation with someone.
Sadly, this seems easier said than done. Especially now, when politics is like wildfire à la “Game of Thrones.”
Perhaps the way to discuss politics is to not actually discuss politics, but to talk about issues. Or, even better, to listen about issues. Instead of pressing an argument, perhaps the route to unity (if that is, in fact, the goal) is to ask questions and seek answers rather than assuming we already know everything. Perhaps the way forward isn’t shouting at each other but trying to hear each other. Perhaps the way to find common ground isn’t by talking in absolutes but by accepting the fact that every issue is clouded in nuance. Perhaps the way to prove a point isn’t by demanding acquiescence but seeking agreement one issue at a time.
Because in this day and age, it seems that perhaps the best path forward is one that advances one argument at a time. This wish for unity seems much too ambitious. Unless, perhaps, our goal for unity is that we unite in the desire to listen to each other, to hear each other, to speak each other’s language, and to stop demanding that the other side come over to our side on each and every issue.
This shouldn’t be all that difficult. It’s as easy as deciding to listen to other points of view, to hear what other people are saying, and to really try to understand each other. It’s as simple as not trying to force our own views on everyone else. It’s as easy as not making demands.
That’s one vow that’s pretty easy to make: I vow to stop demanding that my political opponents acquiesce to my views. I vow to listen to the other side. I vow to educate myself so that I better understand opposing points of view.
Unity comes not from making demands but from seeking common ground.
Will you join me?