Today’s Word on Áccent: Division

There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation. — Herbert Spencer

“United we stand, divided we fall” is the paraphrase of a saying by John Dickinson, considered one of the “Founding Fathers” of the United States. In thinking about the politically divisive times in which we now live in this country, we would all do well to heed those words today.

Yet, in thinking about our political divisions, typically described as left and right, liberal and conservative, or Democrat and Republican, I’d like to focus on how we engage with each other. How do we talk to each other? How do we interact on social media?

Are we respectful of other people as fellow citizens and human beings? Do we seek to understand? Do we acknowledge the rights of others to express a different point of view … and then actually allow them to do it?

What pains me the most when I peruse social media is when I see posts, comments, or even jokes that 1) ascribe negative characteristics to a particular group of people, 2) are derisive/contemptuous of a particular group of people, or 3) show intolerance in the name of calling out intolerance (that’s simply the height of hypocrisy). In the past, we would have rightly challenged this type of language as “prejudiced” or “narrow-minded.”

In this case, I’m not talking about racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, or any type of expressed contempt based on personal characteristics; I’m referring to what Democrats (leftists, liberals) are saying about Republicans (right-wingers, conservatives) and vice versa. And I’m also not talking about simple differences of opinions on policies, procedures, candidates, or political ideals. I’m talking about name-calling and painting groups with a widely negative brush.

It might be useful to try to figure out where these types of attitudes come from. More than likely, the person who posts content on social media or makes these kinds of negative comments has a sense of righteousness about his or her positions. Again, there’s nothing wrong about taking a position. What I see as wrong is being so closed-minded that you won’t take the time to listen to or attempt to at least understand where the other person is coming from. Isn’t it also misguided to ascribe wrong or evil motives to people (who don’t actually have evil motives) just because they disagree with you? Yet I see that happen all the time, especially on social media.

I’m actually not a huge fan of debate. I often find it exhausting. But I would rather do a bit of debate on policy and take the time to hear another point of view than post something or comment about an opposite political view in a way that shows contempt. Isn’t it more important to remember that the people you are disparaging are your aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, neighbors, bosses, coworkers, servers, customers, colleagues, and friends? These are human beings you’re talking about, people with the same kinds of issues, problems, and feelings as you, people trying to live good lives, trying to make a living and make a happy life. Just like you are.

I have a problem with people who choose their self-righteous ideology over someone else’s human dignity and person-hood. I don’t have a problem with people talking about issues, policies, positions, and all their reasoning behind them.

Here are a few examples: I have heard Democrats/liberals say (or post) that most Republicans are racists, are uneducated, and are selfish (as in they are unconcerned about the poor/immigrants/refugees). I have heard Republicans/conservatives say (or post) that most Democrats are unpatriotic America-haters, are for completely open borders, and are too controlling (as in they want too much regulation and are for extreme taxation).

According to a June 2019 article in The Atlantic, “What is corroding American politics is, specifically, negative partisanship: Although most liberals feel conflicted about the Democratic Party, they really hate the Republican Party. And even though most conservatives feel conflicted about the Republican Party, they really hate the Democratic Party … America’s political divisions are driven by hatred of an out-group rather than love of the in-group.” Why?

Because, according to a study called The Perception Gap, both sides are usually wrong about their perceptions of the other side. You can take the Perception Gap quiz to find out if your perceptions of the other side are correct. Your score on the quiz is calculated by averaging the difference between your estimates of the other party’s views and their actual views. I’m happy to report that my scores on the quiz were well above average, meaning that my perceptions of the views of both sides were pretty accurate.

Interestingly, the people who are most likely to have wrong perceptions about the other side watch more news, according to The Atlantic article. Does that mean we should stop watching so much news? Maybe. Or you could take the time to watch some of your news from sources coming from a perspective other than yours. If you’re liberal, try watching Fox News or listening to conservative talk radio a few times a week. If you’re conservative, try watching MSNBC or listening to NPR.

If you try that, I suggest not watching or listening to the most partisan pundits on those networks (in other words, avoid the likes of Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity). If you do, you’ll probably just end up feeling even more disgusted and angry at the other side. It might be better to watch programs that feature group discussions with both perspectives represented; you’re more likely to hear less vitriol and a more well-regulated discussion that way.

The truth is that most of the time we are actually much more alike than we are different. We may have differences of opinion about how to get to the goals, but most of the time we have the same goals. That’s another good reason to think twice before posting or commenting something negative on social media about people holding an opposing political view.

That’s also why I picked the image at the top of this blog post. If you notice, there are flowers on both sides of the barbed wire, the same kind of flower. The sunflowers, separated by an artificial barrier, are all just seeking the warmth, joy, and peace that comes from basking in the sun. For most of us, that’s all we’re trying to do too. My suggestion is that we all do it with a whole lot more kindness toward the people on the other side of the fence.

In searching for a focus for this blog, I finally alighted on the idea of WORDS. For a site called “Áccent on Words,” it makes sense. As an editor and writer, I work with words for a living. Words are important to me. But really, they’re important to everyone, and even more so in an age when we’re constantly bombarded with them and continually consume them through social media, television, radio and what we choose to read. My aim is to choose a particular word or phrase as the focus of each new blog post and talk about why our words matter. — Deborah Jackson