The phrase “one nation, indivisible” is very familiar to Americans of my generation who have learned “The Pledge of Allegiance” to their country’s flag in their early school years. Ironically, the pledge was written in the late 1800s for a flag seller as part of an advertising campaign. More recently the words “under God” were inserted between “nation” and “indivisible” but I still recall the original version which I must have repeated hundreds if not thousands of times as a child and young adult.
Abraham Lincoln’s famous 1858 speech emphasized “a house divided against itself cannot stand” – words that also come to mind as I was pondering the excess divisiveness so prevalent in my country today. We are presently building silos of ideologies, isolating ourselves into factions and preaching to our choirs about the faults and defects of “the other.” Each silo is suffering from “groupthink” – reinforcing its own dogma and avoiding any feedback that disagrees with the party line. This simply builds the walls dividing us higher and higher, making reconciliation more difficult.
In my mind, there is no doubt that we are well along the way of irreparably dividing ourselves here in the U.S. I get emails every week, from liberal friends and conservative friends, some calling themselves libertarians, some progressives, that shock me with their vitriol, the mean-spirited nature of their commentaries or, in lieu of their own compositions, the texts they are forwarding which contain such sarcasm and dismissive characterizations of people with whom they disagree. It is as if many people, friends of mine included, are sacrificing relationships in order to be right, subordinating community to their righteousness and, in some cases, putting their opinions ahead of friendships and family. Technology is allowing us to go beyond the limits of common decency because we don’t have “the other” facing us; we can hide behind the shield of technology and hurl our insults from the safety of our computers.
We are taking our opinions far too seriously when we put our prejudices and ideologies ahead of people. There is nothing wrong or unhealthy with contention, debate and even argument as long as it is in the context of respect and relationship with the other person. Successful people realize the benefits of contentiousness and debate. It often improves the outcome as both sides sometimes see value in the other’s position and, usually, a better result emerges. George Washington saw this in our nation’s founding. A strong advocate of opposing sides on issues engaging in debate, he recognized how this could lead to optimal outcomes. However, he was also wary of partisanship that could lead to concretized positions and less than optimum results, often a compromise to the lowest common denominator.
Healthy differences of opinion have helped America grow and prosper. Respectful contentiousness comes with citizenship in a democracy! The diversity of ideas and cultures has proven incredibly valuable in our nation’s history. After the contentiousness the opposing players can laugh together, have a beer and leave with good natured feelings for all concerned. But vitriolic, cruel and dismissive sarcasm and meanness leads to rifts that may prove permanently damaging to others – people, perhaps even friends and family members. Like war without explosions, it leads to deep wounds that cannot be healed with a beer or a laugh.
What effect does this “dissing” (disrespectful and dismissive behavior) of each other have in the rest of the world? How many culture wars are going on, above the surface and below, where the opposing parties harbor hate and disrespect for the other side. America, once a model for the power of a diverse democracy, has now become a model of separation, “us versus them” which reflects in our domestic politics (which is reported around the world every day) and our hegemonious foreign policy. The world is becoming more divided in stark contrast to the 1945 U.S.-sponsored vision for a united world (the United Nations). The United States is now engaged in a new “civil war;” instead of blue versus grey it is red versus blue …
We are creating a “divisble” nation and a “divisble” world. Can the nation still stand if it is divided? Was Lincoln wrong? Or will it fall apart as ideological factions take precedence over relationships with fellow citizens?
Borders on maps are human constructs which are artificial anyway so the world won’t really be divided – only the people will. States and nations are also artificial so they may go extinct but not the continents on which they once stood. The planet will survive our divisiveness but will our civilizations?
Do you know the story of the collapse of the Easter Island civilization? They could build 80-ton statues 33 feet high which remain there today as evidence of their civilization. And they could drag them 12 miles where they arranged them in a pattern, a seemingly impossible task given their lack of technology. They could navigate the Pacific Ocean, reaching the most remote islands in the world. However, to do this they could also cut down their rich rain forest, ultimately dooming themselves to extinction. With no trees left for fishing canoes, the Easter Islanders turned to finding more and more reasons to hate one another, eventually resorting to cannibalism and devouring each other. The population fell by 90% in a few years and neither the society nor the island ecology have recovered in the 300 years since.
How can people be so dumb, you might ask? Evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond says that sometimes it’s a failure to perceive a problem, especially if it comes on very slowly, like climate change. Often it’s a matter of conflicting interests with no resolution at a higher level than the interests — warring clans, greedy industries. Or there may be a failure to examine and understand the past.
Unless more people start insisting on respectful communications about their ideologies – their “interests” – and encourage dialogue rather than war as a means of reconciling their different interests, our species will continue to divide and fragmentize. Will our incivility toward one another degenerate into some modern version of cannibalism? Unless we cease this warring – domestically with each other and internationally through our foreign policy – we just might continue to perceive the problem until it is too late.
We are better than this! We can do much better in getting along with one another. So let’s use technology to bring us closer together, not further separate us. Let’s stand for a higher road in reconciling our differences. If we insist on perpetuating this divisiveness, humans could be added to the endangered species list.
Recorded history has been consistent regarding the lifecycle of empires. All the ones with which we are familiar – Mongolian, Spanish, Portuguese, Roman, British, Soviet and Ottoman to name a few – have not been overturned by another power. All of them have imploded, weighted down by their own hubris, much like Easter Island. Let us walk a different path and cease this divisiveness before we ruin this great country. Let us start the essential self-reflection we have so stalwartly avoided.
Join me in ending the cycles of incivility, negativity, disrespect and sarcasm. Take a stand by refusing to engage in conversations or email exchanges that perpetuate these cycles that take us all down to lower and lower levels of human relationship. Stop listening to it; stop repeating it; stop encouraging this pattern of divisiveness. Instead of opposing what we don’t like, let’s start proposing what we do want. Instead of spouting our opinions and preaching to those in our silo, let’s reach out to those who have different viewpoints. Nothing will change unless we do.