Not many people would dispute that our communities, state and country have become more polarized and divided than they have in a long time, possibly ever.
It's a phenomenon that has grown in recent years, with the advent of opinion-driven cable TV programming and the growth and relative anonymity of social media. It doesn't help that many of our elected leaders seem more than willing to fuel the discord to strengthen their political party's power and appease their voting base. Sure, they tout their bipartisan efforts at community town halls and publicly decry partisan gridlock, but then they send out media releases that disparage most of the actions of the opposing party and vote their own party line on the majority of the issues.
There is no reason for any of this to change unless the public makes the first move. And now is a great time to make that first move. Finally, after more than a year of limited or even nonexistent in-person contact, our state has opened the doors to a mask-free, social distancing-free life. There's no better time to take advantage, to step away from the television, put down the smartphone or ignore the keyboard. It's time to re-embrace the art of – the need for – in-person conversations with eye contact and accountability for one's words.
Let's face it, people are far more brazen or even cruel with their words when they type them behind a keyboard and don't have to look the reader(s) in the eye or witness their emotional response. People who rely on social media and television programs to form their opinions are much more likely to encounter or seek out information that affirms, not challenges, their views.
On the one hand, it does make sense. People have very deep-rooted and emotionally charged views on things like the Second Amendment, systemic racism, the economy and certainly management of the pandemic. It's hard to challenge views that we believe form our personal identity. It's painful to question them, to open up the possibility of being wrong about something.
But that is where destruction of this polarization and division has to start. Despite what the opinion-driven TV shows, social media memes and politicians are trying to tell us, very few people are inherently out to make everyone's life miserable and screw over a bunch of people. Do they have a certain set of needs they want met? Of course, but those needs were formed over a long period of time, nurtured by upbringing, background, environment and life experiences. You may not agree with those needs, but there's a good chance your family life, personal experiences and hometown differ – maybe by a lot.
Disagreeing with another person's view or even the view of a whole group of people is pretty much inevitable. This country is comprised of hundreds of millions of people, our state is home to several million, and this small, rural county of ours has a population of roughly 25,000. It's safe to assume that none of us grew up with the exact same experiences. We won't all see things the same way.
Recognizing that disagreement is a certainty, it becomes important to discuss those differences in a civil, humane matter. Arguing is fine, debate is healthy, but only if both sides are willing to truly listen and understand how the person with a different view reached their conclusion.
Will minds change? Maybe, but even if they don't, there is a better chance that each person has some new information to consider – a better understanding of how someone could reach such a different conclusion on such an important issue.
The more of this behavior we see, the more likely it is that people will come together, seek a common ground and insist their leaders do the same. And if we trend that direction, social media and cable news channels will have little choice but to follow.
It won't happen overnight, but it starts with us. Be part of the change we all want to see.
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