I once knew a man (he shall remain nameless) who was racially prejudiced. He lived his entire adult life in a town whose population contained not one single person of color.
This man and his wife went to church regularly, were active in their community, raised their children, paid taxes, and took care of their neighbor, an elderly widow, by mowing her lawn, shoveling her snow, and tending her garden.
When the widow died, a young family, a husband and wife (let’s call them Joe and Mary), with two small children, moved into her house. The wife was African-American.
Surprisingly, the two families became friends, often visiting each other and enjoying meals together. The prejudiced man and his wife sometimes babysat the two small children, who regarded them almost like another set of grandparents. They bought the children little presents and spoiled them, just like all grandparents do.
Both couples read a lot, followed the news closely, and traveled the globe, so their opinions were generally well-informed (except for the obvious one).
They often had lively, spirited discussions about topics that matter – politics, religion, journalism, education – and didn’t usually see eye-to-eye, but the debates were always respectful and the friendship was strengthened, not weakened by the exchanges.
One day, I was talking to the man about politics when he made the shocking statement: “Black people aren’t smart enough to govern themselves.”
My jaw dropped.
“Are you telling me that Mary isn’t smart enough to govern herself?
“Well, no…Mary is certainly smart enough. She is smart enough to be president of the United States.”
“Hmmm…” It’s hard to hate people close up.
Fast-forward three decades.
It’s only February and already my eyes hurt from rolling them at news stories on television and online. We have nine more months of this bickering and pettiness to look forward to.
We are already firmly ensconced in our respective bunkers – left or right – lobbing verbal hand grenades at one another, coming out only reluctantly for gatherings with family and friends who may include members of the opposite political party before scuttling back to the safety of our fortifications.
Here is the thing: it’s hard to hate people once you actually get to know them, as the man in my story found out. People are much easier to hate from a distance. As a group.
If I am tempted to think “Democrats are elitists“, I remember my late mother-in-law, a Democrat who volunteered at the polls each year. She worked as a nurse’s aide, certainly not an easy vocation, and yet found time to be a collector of lonely people who depended on her for assistance and companionship. She was no elitist.
If I might think “Republicans are jerks”, I recall my sister-in-law, a staunch Republican, who is not a jerk. She is one of the kindest, friendliest people I know, mentoring engaged couples at her church before they marry and going the extra mile to help her teen-aged grandson.
Do we trust our real-life experiences or the rhetoric from politicians and their online minions who have a vested interest in keeping us angry at each other?
Think about someone you know personally who belongs to the opposite political party. Yes, think about them right now. Take your time, I’ll wait.
Chances are they are not the racist, misogynist, insufferably politically correct, wacko, zealous, extremist, radical, obstructionist, loser, lunatic morons they are made out to be on social media.
While we all have the right to feel anger at times, holding on to unrelenting anger toward those on the other side of the political divide is unproductive and harmful.
If we hold anger inside, eventually we feel depleted and exhausted. If we constantly express anger, we become irrelevant in the discussion needed to make connections and create change.
For us to maintain our anger at members of the opposite camp, we must go through an insidious process called dehumanization.
When we see people with different views as someone less than human, we eventually believe they do not deserve basic human rights and protections.
Seeing “the enemy” as less than human allows us to keep our hate alive.
When we call people names: “Crazy Joe” Biden, or “Cartoon Villain” Kellyanne Conway, it helps to strip their humanity away.
If you are upset when you see a picture of a person wearing a KKK hood with a MAGA hat captioned “Evil doesn’t die, it reinvents itself“, you better also be upset when Tomi Lahren says “Democrats hate America“.
No Republican I know condones evil and no Democrat I know hates America.
Attributing these characteristics to those on the left or the right may give us the momentary thrill of self-righteous indignation, but it deepens the divide, fuels our anger, and keeps meaningful conversations from occurring.
What are we to do?
First, we must absolutely refuse to propagate dehumanizing messages on social media #NotOnMyFeed. Many of these divisive memes are churned out by Russian trolls aiming to weaken and destabilize democracies. Let’s not give them traction.
Second, we must be willing to engage people with different views. Thoughtful, respectful discussion is good; name-calling is not.
The current echo chambers are fueled by having a dialog only with people who will reinforce our own preconceived outlook.
Hearing other points of view takes courage.
Finally, we need to look for connections. We have more in common with people of different faiths, political views, ethnicities, and professions than we have differences. Humans are hard-wired for community.
When talking to someone of a different political persuasion, the first thing we must do is to listen. I mean really listen without formulating counter-arguments in our mind while the other person is speaking.
Then try to find points of agreement. There may not be many, but start small and build.
Any progress at all has to be better than rolling my eyes for nine more months.
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