Jonathan Haidt recently wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly called: WHY THE PAST 10 YEARS OF AMERICAN LIFE HAVE BEEN UNIQUELY STUPID It’s not just a phase.
I was so impressed by Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion that today the book still sits on my desk all marked up and ready for me to nose through it once again to discover language and ideas.
I think I will break this blog into more than one posting because the relevant content of this article can be overwhelming. For openers I quote directly from the article: “Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three.”.
Recently, out of some kind of hunger for community I have been exploring ways to trust people whose political views appear much different than my own. Most of the people I share exploratory trust with are good enough parents who keep their children safe and healthy, volunteer to help the vulnerable, and can be very generous with their time. That said, the moment the translation of our experience of life in local community steps up to politics , the language and relationships can easily tip towards toxic. As Mr Haidt proposes in his article, social media and bad actors have managed to the effectively by-pass the best of our natures to escalate our public world of politics into a cruel, verbal shouting match. If I were to withhold trust from my neighbors based on the current political narrative, my trusted friends would be few. I sense that if each side of the nation’s divided culture were to harden absolutely into the positions they currently hold, hope would be lost for a peaceful domestic future for our children in the United States. Something has to change and risks must be taken or this only gets worse. Negotiating relationship based the tacit agreement to temporarily suspend the political/cultural narrative is at best a stopgap to deescalate and reduce hostility. This lockdown on the expression of the political dimension of our personal value structures cannot and should not be sustained for long. Suspension of the critical political conversations inside neighborly relationships due to anticipated toxicity emulates the effects of pandemic lockdown. We can reasonably predict with the breakdown of a working political discourse, bad and even evil things will emerge in the public realm. Getting back to the quote that opened this blog, to survive as a democracy we must renew our capacity to drive a healthy democratic political system through a shared national motivation that can tie together diverse opinion. As of this writing we still have, however threatened they may be, the basic institutions; a Constitution, the remnants of the rule of law, endangered public schools, and a much abused but standing system of governance. Trust is built around commitment and consistent caring sheltered within the framework of these critical institutions. Our government could still provide the necessary consistency if we recommit to the founding principles as well as real work of our democracy. The last major force in the opening quote references “shared stories”. I am talking about narratives that can only be created at the interpersonal/personal level . These human scale stories serve uniquely to create the supportive elements of a shape-shifting shared, mutual reality. Anger is a powerful activator. Anger wakes us to the necessity of action. But anger sustained, nursed and held on to as a motivator can paralyze our capacity for the work of reconciliation. The national and communal anger transformed into hatred becomes nothing more than ideological mooring supporting the progress of our mutual national self-destruction. Motivation to save this nation and culture will ultimately be found in the shared stories and the ‘good’ purposes those common stories can serve up to nurture us along. We are slowly being paralyzed by sustained anger posing as motivation expressing in cruelty and hostility. Our current state looks like stupidity but sadly is deeply much more than that.