I am writing this column on Friday, Oct. 30. The presidential election is four days away, on Tuesday. So I don’t know – as I write this – who will win the contest. You, however, may already know the winner.
Whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump prevails, we have just endured a polarized and tumultuous four years. I think it is safe to say that most Republican and Democratic citizens did not enjoy the excess of conflict, tension, and hard feelings that grew – on all sides – during President Trump’s tenure.
And if it is fair to say that President Trump’s combative style increased the frequency and temperature of disagreements among the citizenry, it is also necessary to point out that deep divisions existed in the country prior to his election in 2016.
We ought to think about our disagreements, why they have become so intense and uncompromising, why it has become so easy to disparage those with whom we disagree, and so easy to be sure that we are right in our opinions.
There are many reasons that we have become just terrible at argument or discussion. First, the stakes are high, and we feel threatened. People’s jobs, health care, the economy, the environment and democracy itself are all being affected.
Second, globalization and technology and ever-increasing populations have shrunk the United States and the world. Today, we are thrown together, both literally and metaphorically. With less physical space to buffer everybody, and less mental space in which to periodically reset oneself, it is harder to achieve and maintain the sort of healthy emotional distance, perspective, and equilibrium that people need in order to engage with society and others in the most productive way.
Take the internet, for example, as a relatively new factor. If ever there was a force that does not want us to be wise, cool-headed, patient and conciliatory, the online world is it. Increasingly in our faces (screens everywhere) and in our minds, the algorithms and dynamics of Webworld are corroding both our skills and temperament for rational discussion. And the internet’s pervasiveness and ever-on insistence shrinks the world, speeds up events and reactions and prioritizes conflict and emotion over deliberation and consensus.
Furthermore, we’re becoming worse at story-telling and story-listening. We’re able to most competently live a life when we live by a story – a round, integrated, sensible, informed and sense-making story. This story grounds us, orients us, and gives us values, ethics and a way to learn. It protects us from being whipsawed by the world around us, and it gives us the non-threatened confidence to hear other people’s stories.
Living by one’s story is different than living in an internet “silo,” or living by a framework which can accept only certain ideas. We build silos to reduce our exposure to ideas we don’t like. And too many of us live by frameworks that are disjointed, ahistorical, lack depth, or cannot cope with information that seems not to fit with the view from our story.
Conversely, living by an informed and open-eyed story gives us the personal integrity, curiosity and generosity of spirit to see all of the world, absorb and consider all of the arguments and – most important – contemplate and understand the lives of all people.
I don’t exactly “blame” any of us ordinary citizens for this state of affairs. Led by the internet, talk radio, disinformation, advertising, a money-stained politics and a distorted capitalism, the average citizen got here slowly, accidently, without malice, and to some degree a victim of the zeitgeist.
We are simply out of the habit of seeing the lives of other people, and we are out of the practice of insisting on placing a context around the circumstances and events of the world. We no longer automatically extend legitimacy to people unlike ourselves.
It is telling that most of us now look at the internet instead of reading books. The web gives us tweets, clips, factoids, links and fragments. The web delivers a world recklessly without context, history or integration. Reading a book, on the other hand, presents a story; we are compelled to contemplate characters, settings, circumstances and a continuum of time, all in the context of a coherent narrative.
Imagine if you had to write an accurate story of America, from 1775 to the present. You’d have to include all of the characters, landscapes, events, conflicts, traumas, politics, industrialization and development of the nation. You wouldn’t be able to have gaps or omissions. You’d have to be fair and comprehensive. When you got to the present, in order to explain it, you’d have to understand the lives of all Americans.
Looking at today’s election especially, we need to remember that everybody’s arguments are reflections of the stories they live by. Same as ourselves. The stories vary in competence, yes, but they all hold legitimacy. They come from somewhere.
If we can grant each other just that modest validity, it would be a start. Today, whoever wins, it should be obvious that we need to relate to each other in new ways.
Brian T. Watson of Swampscott is author of “Headed Into the Abyss: The Story of Our Time, and the Future We’ll Face.” Contact him at email@example.com.