The insidious divide
For my first two years of university, I went to a community college. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do (I still fluctuate), so I saved some money in the first couple of years…
…Which I quickly burned through in choosing to go to a private Baptist university for my final two years of undergrad.
This school had plenty of social controls, behavioral restrictions, pledges and contracts on where to go, what to do and how to act. There was no dancing, no public displays of affection, curfews…all that lovely stuff.
So, naturally there was one very strong political affinity there at the school. While there were the scant few rebel Democrats who hid in the shadows, the overwhelming culture of the vast majority of students was militant right-wing Evangelical Conservatism.
Why did I go there? Long story. Not the purpose of the post, but one I’ll be glad to share if you’d like. I’ll need a beer—maybe six.
However, back to it, I initially drank the Kool-Aid. I would listen to the sermons preached every day at chapel (we had mandatory chapel five days a week). I would hear people talk. I would watch current events unfold and hear professors weigh in. I was there during 9/11.
I was surrounded by one side of the political spectrum, isolated from all other influences. I was so far entrenched in this apparatus, that I started to think it was foolishness how anybody could even think another way.
I fell victim to confirmation bias (link). It was inconceivable that people could be against the conservative way of thinking. Conservatism was the only logical explanation for everything.
And liberals were the antithesis of logic. They were idiots. They made no sense. They were dead set against everything the freedom-loving, patriotic conservatives loved.
I’m not trying to be glib. I believed this. I didn’t even think Democrats could be Christian. How could they possibly be reading the same Bible I was? My views were so solid! There was no way—absolutely no way, any of these opposing viewpoints could be true. It wasn’t even worth looking at them. Our fortress of apologetics, our mountain of evidence on everything from the social gospel to free markets was foolproof. There was no refuting any of it.
After college, I went on to help start a film company (link) that featured a then somewhat controversial pastor named Rob Bell. We made these little vignettes called NOOMAs (link). And it was then I started to run across people who thought differently than I did.
Now I wasn’t a zealot. I had chaffed greatly under the repressive culture of my university. I was nearly expelled (that’s another six-beer story). However, I still had been girded with the foolproof armor of my conservative forebears.
And yet, I started to run across very smart people who—shockingly—didn’t agree with me at all. I won’t get into the theological points here. At this time I’m mainly speaking about political affiliations: the role of government, the concepts of laissez-faire government, regulated markets vs. free markets, and the general social responsibility of the church vs. the state.
I would saunter up to these liberals and routinely have my ass handed to me. I would toss all the fact grenades I could find. I would cite all of the supply-side economists I knew and lay out the cause of all of the conservative social commentators I could remember…and would be thoroughly dismantled in my logic and approach. Not all the time (I was a pretty good apologist), but often enough.
How could this be? How could thinking Americans disagree with what I had been brought up to believe? How could logical, smart Americans possibly be liberal? Liberals were all idiots. They were worse than idiots, they were subversive, seditious communists, bent on destroying the family and all that.
But when you actually spoke with some of these liberals, you found they often loved America. I was shocked. Again, I’m not meaning to be glib, but it was a moment in my naive, young life when I realized that not everything spoken to me up to that point was truth.
It seems ridiculous, but I finally started to learn to doubt the words of my elders. Not to disrespect them (I feel I’m taking half of this entry to qualify everything)…but to doubt what many people said.
This doubting would come in handy as I became a journalist. I was taught never to trust anyone—to always verify information with a second source (or at least we should). Only bad journalists wrote one-source stories or didn’t try to get the other side. It was doing a disservice to the audience to not portray the other side.
I learned the value of this other side. They weren’t maniacs (well, most weren’t). These people who had spent a lifetime cultivating a way of thinking opposite of mine were amazing people. As a naive middle-class white boy, it took some time to undo my prejudices and predispositions.
The Army taught me a lot as well. I served with Wiccans, Hindus, Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, single dads, former addicts, immigrants who barely spoke English—and hell that was just in my basic training unit.
I slowly learned to appreciate the value of people and their views.
Now this self-aggrandizing has a point. And it’s hardly to ask for some sort pat on back. What I’m saying is it took me considerate effort to break away of the normal bubble I feel a lot of us grow up in.
Every day, when I read about how quickly we demonize our political, social and even spiritual opponents—how quickly Ed and Susan and Anna become “them”…and how we must stop “them” from harming “us”…when we take individual people and apply sweeping generalizations…when that happens, I’m amazed at this often unrecognized insidious divide that has separated us far from each other.
We are now so polarized, having built such magnificent defenses of our opposing ideologies, that what we love most is the lethal splendor of our intellectual armaments. We cheer when our ideological enemies impale themselves on our bulwarks. We all but erupt in song when we win an argument and we can scarcely hold faith in Creation when our righteous cause loses an election.
I think back to when I discovered, scarily late in life, my way of thinking actually had flaws! And I remember that there were smart and intelligent people who opposed me on many intellectual, ideological, political and social fronts—who yet were civil and informative and often logically sound.
I remember turning 20 and feeling like I had just turned 5.
It was liberating. And humbling. And enlightening. And it allowed me to know about what I actually did believe and to stand up for what I actually did hold to be universally true…with respect, even!
I found it was much easier to compromise and discuss differences when I showed respect and saw my opponents as people, instead of demonized caricatures.
I know I’ve written about this before, but in light of recent events, I thought it was worth saying again.