I’m sitting at my desk wondering how to explain — no, how to beg my relatives to have a real conversation about what’s happening in this country. A conversation that does not begin and end in hostility and discomfort. A conversation that is not cut short by trite accusations, racist conspiracies, or hollow claims that all of the media is fake unless it’s in favor of their argument. A conversation where we can try to understand why we think the things we do, where I can explain why I’m afraid of what’s happening in this country, and where I can get a hint as to what makes them believe it is okay, even for the best.
I sit here contemplating all of the times I tried to talk politics at the family table growing up. When I was in high school, I was “too young to understand.” When I was in college, I “hadn’t had a taste of the real world.” Now that I’m an adult, years out of college and established in the world, suddenly I’m “jaded by radical brainwashing.”
So, when was I supposed to be having this conversation?
Quite honestly, I don’t know how to have that conversation. I have tried, and it feels impossible. I have tried over social media. I have tried over otherwise merry outings and dinners. I have tried in passing. I have tried on vacation. Over the years, I have attempted to engage with family and friends, posting cries of outrage at the lives lost in this country, the instability and tension refined over the past 4 years. When the opportunity presents itself, I’ve tried to appeal to reason. I’ve tried to appeal to emotion. At the end of the day, it always seems to end the same. All of the conversations go something like this:
Look at this [seemingly bad thing]! How can we not condemn this?
I don’t think it’s bad, and it’s actually [the victim/the left/your/democrats]’s fault.
Why do you think that? [thing] seems damning. What justification could there be?
[Silence/I don’t want to talk about this/Unrelated counterpoint/You don’t know what you’re talking about/I’m actually okay with this/You’re overreacting]
It goes like this in circles or until one party gets so frustrated that the conversation grinds to a halt. It’s not sociable to argue and is thus cast aside in favor of more pleasant conversation or no conversation period.
I don’t want it to be like this. It’s a soul-draining cycle.
If we are to continue as the United States of America, we must be able to talk to each other without fear of ending relationships, and in a way that’s productive and affirming. It’s not enough to just “agree to disagree” — that’s how we got to where we are in the first place. It’s easy to remain apathetic when things are going relatively well in the day-to-day. We disagree on fundamental ideas that affect our lives and the lives of others, and then act like it’s no big deal over drinks the next day. “Politics? Yes, the world sure is crazy. How’s work treating you?” On social media, we’re hellbent philosophers ready to stake out territory. But when we’re in person we deflect and would rather talk about sports, the kids, or that new movie. No progress is made.
And I get it. Family is family. Ohana. Unconditional love, respect, and all that. However, that should be all the more reason to make the effort to come to an understanding, to find common ground, to have open, comfortable lines of communication on topics that are heavier. When these channels are closed off we sow invisible distance in our relationships, and that boils up to distance in our country.
Let me be clear: The problem with this country is that we are bound together as a network of families but collectively divided by beliefs that we’re too apathetic, uncomfortable, or ashamed to talk about. And understandably so, as trying to talk about them has led to families breaking, or in the worst cases, violence.
So what happens? We stick to our guns, believing whatever is in our echo chamber, even if means assuming that entire groups of people are wrong, misled, or evil, even when we’re presented with new, reliable, contradictory information. We refuse to engage, to unpack and discuss, most notably when we absolutely know we are in the right. I am as guilty of this as anyone, and even in the case where I am right, it’s unproductive to shrug off the responsibility of communicating. All of this together forms a sort of collective cognitive dissonance, and that keeps us at ends with each other. It leads to an uneducated, divided public — a public that is ripe for deception and manipulation by whoever is loudest that shares their beliefs. Make no mistake, this is how democracy dies.
2,400 years ago Plato (in the Republic), pessimistically denounced democracy, predicting that it leads to tyranny. Plato believed that for democracy to work it had to tie up a diverse set of beliefs in the interest of freedom, a near-impossible task, and doing so requires leaders that can unite such diversities. In the never-ending quest for freedom, he predicted that people would abandon social order and ideals to follow these leaders. For those leaders to retain their trust, they would have to assure the uninformed public that their way is the only way for democracy to live. Plato thought that the leader, consumed by these notions, would inevitably become a demagogic tyrant, sure that enemies are everywhere plotting the downfall of the state. Plato believes the tyrant will ultimately trust no one, and bend over backward to reinforce their distrust in others.
When we are divided we allow for these kinds of systems to emerge. Tension rises to the point where no matter who you ask, revolution of some form is the answer. No matter what you believe, it seems the common agreement is that the country is, in some way or another, on the verge of collapse. We all have our pitchforks ready, fingers locked to point the blame. Democracy and growth can happen in the shadow of tyranny. By refusing to be ruled by doubt, hatred, and echo-chambers we cast down the power of those that would abuse them.
We have a problem in this country, and it will not dissolve on its own regardless of who wins the election.
Thus it is imperative that we find ways to listen — to have hard discussions without reproach. We must work together to overcome the schism in this country and rebuild lines of communication. Frankly, we don’t have time to waste, either. Between climate change and all of the other maladies of 2020, we simply can’t spare a moment. Our families are in trouble now, and they will continue to be in trouble if they’re subjected to 4 more years of this unrest. The United States of America is a nation of families, and we are families divided. The change must then start at the family level.