I’ve considered writing this post for a long, long time. I always stopped myself for some reason or another – not wanting to ruffle feathers, maybe, or trying to steer clear of such an emotional topic. But something happened recently that caused me to become so appalled by myself that I feel like I need to speak up.
The last time I heard Trump speak was earlier this week, at the umpteenth GOP debate – where I sat on the couch, head-in-hands, and listened to the same hateful blather we’ve been hearing since June. Someone else in the room shook their head, let out a low whistle and said, “If he gets elected, it could very well lead to an assassination.”
The words tumbled out of my mouth before I gave them a second thought: “We can only hope.”
I’m ashamed to admit that. Ashamed to type it out, specifically, but also ashamed that I’m apparently capable of such despicable thoughts to begin with. I heard myself say those words and almost physically recoiled. I challenged myself, in that moment: “Really, Susie? Did you just wish death on someone?”
How can I purport to be a compassionate, thoughtful, open-minded person if I just flippantly disregarded someone’s life just because I don’t agree with them?
Make no mistake – I do not want Donald Trump to be president. I don’t even want to see his face anymore. His incredulous ignorance would be the downfall of our country – and I can’t understand how any president could possibly be successful when he was almost banned from the UK for his flagrant hate speech. In my perfect world, Trump would slither back into his gold-encrusted rat cave and never be heard from again.
…Okay, I’m guilty of some hatred myself. But death? That’s low, even for me.
And yet – it’s not even that uncommon. This type of wrath, hatred, and absolute intolerance for the opposing side of a political argument has been steadily growing for 150 years. In fact, the American public is more politically polarized today than during the Civil War… so me casually dismissing the idea of a presidential assassination is not altogether surprising. It’s merely a product of the growing ideological gap that has enabled us to view each other as if on opposite sides of a barbed wire fence.
Since I’ve been alive, party affiliation has become as rigid a part of a person’s identity as their ethnicity. With the social networks and the media offering a platform for only the loudest and most extreme voices to be heard, we’ve come to expect the same of the people around us: What are you, red or blue?
But when I was younger, it was not entirely uncommon to meet someone who considered themselves a moderate – or at least, was capable of holding both Democratic or Republican viewpoints depending on the subject matter. (As Chris Rock famously said, “Crime? I’m conservative. Prostitution? I’m liberal.”) Growing up, I tended to admire these people – it seemed to me that someone who saw beyond party affiliation when forming their opinions was slightly more evolved than those who based their entire ideologies on which side of the aisle it represented. Even when it came people who leaned pretty heavily to one side or another, I found greater respect for them if they could point out the merits of the other side’s perspective… then respectfully disagree.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
But now? We’ve mutated so entirely into “us versus them” that you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who isn’t so busy slinging mud that they even have the capacity to entertain the possibility of respect. We don’t just disagree with our opponents, we abhor them. They aren’t just wrong, they’re downright stupid.
This is strongly reflected in the landscape of political rhetoric right now. Not only has the percentage of Americans with a “very unfavorable” view of the opposing side more than doubled in the last 20 years alone… but among those people, a vast majority actually see the opposing party as a threat to the nation’s well-being. This has consequences for our personal relationships as well: Between 49-63% of Americans say that most or all of their close friends share their political views. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that those who don’t share your views are uninformed, psychotic bozos who don’t understand the way the world works. Right? We belittle them to the point of dehumanization – which I suppose makes it easier for us to… I dunno… wish death upon them.
So why does this matter? Why do I care? Why can’t we just go on hating one another? Because – and this is where my point will become a little ironic – discourse is a good thing. It’s actually a really healthy thing. When done right, it fosters thoughtful progression and critical thinking. But when we’re all so cemented into our beliefs, entirely unwilling to entertain the opposing position – and moreover, when we’re of the mind that those opponents are the spawn of the devil himself – any hope of common ground or collaboration goes out the window.
“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.” – Leo Tolstoy
Not only does that land us in in a presidential tug-of-war where each new commander-in-chief spends their term unraveling the accomplishments of their predecessor… it also becomes a self-perpetuating societal problem, wherein we only surround ourselves with like-minded people who reassure us of our existing belief systems (rather than challenging us to think differently).
Left unchecked, this will only lead to more antagonism, less compassion, and increasingly siloed political gangs which do little to move our country forward.
I don’t care who you vote for. (Unless you’re voting for Trump. Then I care a little.) But whatever you choose, let it be after rational, open-minded consideration. Find someone on the opposing side and invite them to coffee. Ask them questions until you fully understand their position. Try to articulate areas in which you do agree, then areas you don’t – and why – while being respectful. Then use that intellectual prowess to make an informed, level-headed decision – both in this election and for the rest of your life.
“Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world. It requires profound purpose larger than the self kind of understanding.” – Bill Bullard