Human interaction can be difficult. I’m sure we have all experienced the social awkwardness that inevitably arises from attending a small college. We see people we have had a few quick conversations with, acquaintances we barely know, and are lost for words in uncomfortable silence, not knowing whether to smile or make eye contact, whether to say hello or to simply nod acknowledgment. In these situations, I often contemplate potential responses for a long enough period that by the time I have constructed a plan of action, the moment has passed. Like many others, I find small talk to be quite challenging at times.
Despite our difficulties connecting with one another, in our age of increasing digitalization, it is also difficult to disconnect. Technology simulates proximity and closeness through the walls and borders that confine us. Though we may be alone, huddled under blankets in a dark room, phone calls, texts, movies and online games make us feel connected to others. Unless we turn off our devices, we are never truly alone.
Therefore, in a world that boasts of constant connectedness, how are in-person connections still so challenging? More importantly, how is our society still so politically polarized and distant? How can inter-party dialogue be utilized to break down the harmful barriers that confine our beliefs, ideas, and thinking?
In the short 18 years of my life, I have become hyper-aware of the polarization of those with conflicting ideologies. Growing up in Oakland, CA, a diverse hub of progressivism and radical leftism, life at home was starkly juxtaposed with multi-annual visits to my family in the San Fernando Valley, a region of red rigidly separated from a state of blue. As an adolescent, I was confused about what I should believe. The political ideologies of my childhood institutions rarely overlapped with the political ideologies of my extended family. During these formative years, I was challenged to figure out what I truly believed. I was forced to analyze the information being presented to me and figure out how it related to me, to my peers and family and to society at large.
I often disagreed with the beliefs of my extended family. I was able to engage in political dialogue with them, but this dialogue was rarely productive, often ending in heated arguments over dinners, frustrated tears and aggressive silences. Reflecting on these experiences as an adult, I see that this lack of productivity results from the severe polarization of political parties. Both my family members and I were unable to admit to any sort of fault, unable to express any inkling of agreement with the other side. I viewed their expressions of opinion as attacks against my party and myself.
I still struggle to overcome partisan biases and have by no means figured out how to effectively navigate our country’s political landscape. Every day, I find myself automatically siding with ideas seen as liberal and feeling contempt for ideas associated with conservatism. Given the extreme and dangerous environment of American society, it is hard not to lump all those identifying with a certain political party together.
Political polarization results from the multifaceted and multigenerational pain inflicted by one side to another. Those associated with the left are healing from the violence and trauma perpetrated against many communities by political, usually conservative, leaders. Those associated with the right, particularly rural, white conservatives, are also healing from pain. These people, like my extended family members, are a group often ridiculed by mass media outlets. Many conservative leaders prey on these people, cultivating their anger and fear against the establishment and redirecting it towards all those who stand in the way of their goals, namely those who are seen as “different” and associated with progressivism. Neither party’s pain negates the other, yet this collective pain is often misdirected.
Sociologist Nina Eliasoph critiques the danger of this us versus them rhetoric (Contexts, “Scorn Wars: Rural White People and Us,” 03.13.2017), positing that many Americans maintain this ideology, which is fostered by the media. For example, conservative news anchors shame those who receive government aid because “no one should need it” and establish that more tax dollars are going to urban families than rural families. In reality, rural areas receive more government aid than urban areas (Contexts). Through this, rural conservatives feel a collective sense of shame for receiving aid and simultaneous affirmation that they are “better than.” Rural conservatives are often concurrently oppressed and oppressive, taking direction from the establishment that they hate so deeply while benefiting from a privilege of which they are ignorant.
Clearly, the establishment is using party polarization for its own benefit. By creating an “us” versus “them” rhetoric, the establishment shifts the focus from its own wrongdoing to the wrongdoing of those whom it is using, whether they be liberals or conservatives.
Merely saying this, or writing it in a column, does not accomplish much. To create the future that we long to see, we must all work together. We must look for threads of unity in a sea of distance and pain and use these threads to make connections and heal alongside one another.
I consider myself lucky to have grown up in an environment wherein the “truth,” whatever that may be, was not given to me. I was forced to confront the tensions that plague our country head-on and, though this was difficult, I believe these difficulties are necessary for a healthy political environment. Growing up surrounded by both sides, I have seen the similarities shared by both parties. Those in both parties are ridiculed and ignored by the media, pitted against one another through dangerous and derisive rhetoric and struggling to survive in this hyper-politicized world.
In order to conquer this polarization, human interaction is essential. Digitalization and the seemingly ubiquitous access to information should be helping humans to connect with one another, not pushing them apart. Despite the rise of information accessibility, individuals still flock to partisan news agencies. People insult one another based merely upon superficial assessments and binaries. Political beliefs are seen as inextricable from morality and people distance themselves from those whom they regard as different, believing the ideologies of their parties to be ultimate truth.
In reality, the answers are hardly ever partisan. The steps to working towards a society wherein all people are respected, history is not ignored but brought to light and party lines do not divide people but rather spur productive political dialogue lie in collaboration between different groups.
Political parties in and of themselves are not problematic. Having a group of people with whom to organize and confide in is essential to a healthy political environment. The extreme hostility and “othering” that results from the polarization of political parties is what is so dangerous.
This is why human interaction and dialogue is so important. Systems of oppression seek to keep those who are different apart from one another, and we must conquer this. Given that the situation is not hostile or dangerous to ourselves or others, we must engage with others, challenging their beliefs and our own. We must challenge hegemonic systems of power and views.
All of this is to say that if you by chance see an acquaintance milling around the salad bar at the Deece, go up to them and say hello. Make conversation! Even if the resulting product is merely an awkward nod or reciprocal greeting, you have still reached out and done your job acknowledging them as a fellow human being. For every person you meet, you gain access to new perspectives on politics, art, religion and life in general. If you disagree with these different perspectives and feel confident enough, challenge them.
In any case, this will allow you to really examine what you believe and potentially allow someone else to examine beliefs of their own.