It’s commonly accepted that US politics has been polarised for quite a while. People openly identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats; most people tend to associate with those who share their political opinions; media outlets appear to be divided along partisan lines so that people can catch up with what is going on in the world from a perspective that already aligns with their own.
And so it seems that the temptation to disagree with someone simply because they belong to the other side, or to support someone simply because they belong to your side, is becoming harder and harder to avoid.
Using words like ‘left’ or ‘right’, ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’, as the sole basis for dismissing another person’s point of view is essentially saying that you disagree with them because they are on the other side to you. That you don’t even need to listen or take into account their perspective because you have already decided that it is opposed to where you stand. That the world can be neatly divided into two opposite and opposing perspectives, one of which is completely right and one of which is completely wrong.
And it’s often marked not by the language of debate, but by the language of war.
The end result of this, I fear, is what we’ve been seeing more and more in the lead up to this year’s presidential election. It is particularly exemplified in the farcical (but not funny) situation where we see people attempting to defend the behaviour and views of their political party’s candidate no matter how far he strays from what they have previously stated to be their core values. It doesn’t seem to matter how terrible he acts or sounds, the fact that he is on their ‘side’ overrides everything else. From the outside looking in, it’s almost impossible to understand.
Obviously there is much more I could say about the trainwreck that is Trump v Clinton, but for now I want to confine myself to this one idea and the question I have about its impact going forward from here. What will the fact that this tribalism and deep division between two sides, with little room for nuance between them, is being played out in such a public and global way mean for our future public interactions?
What is the pattern being set for how civic debate is to be conducted?
While here in Australia it is still quite rare for the average person to identify themselves day to day by which political party they vote for, the same kind of tribalistic language does seem to be creeping in. I’m certainly seeing words like ‘leftist’ and ‘right-wing’ increasingly used to dismiss an opinion in place of reasoned responses to coherent and valid points of discussion. And these kinds of words are almost always used in an attempt to shut the debate down. To dismiss the other point of view for the sole reason that it is perceived to be the ‘other’ point of view.
It bothers me greatly and to be honest it generally makes me want to disengage. We are talking about the exchange of ideas in a free society, people putting forward their views on what they genuinely believe it best for all of us. But as soon as we start using the language of warfare and tribalism, when we put one another into two simple boxes and stop listening to those who are not in the same box as us, then it seems to me that we have all lost.
How can we find ways to move beyond the simplistic categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘us’ and ‘them’?
How can we recognise that good ideas can come from both sides of the political aisle, and that when we listen to one another we might even find middle ground? How can we change the tone from one of war to one of genuine engagement, accepting that we can all learn something from one another, even from those with whom we disagree, if we will really take time to listen?