We are a nation that is bitterly divided, a nation where political opponents are seen as villains. We are a nation that does not understand each other because we rarely try to. We are a nation that has lost its way because we’d rather lecture than listen.
Currently, well-thought out and cogent political views are difficult to find. Instead, too much of our political dialogue consists of regurgitations and recitations, and accusations of subversive and anti-American motives. Many now judge the validity of an opinion by the vehemence with which it is presented. The facade of hostility we construct around our beliefs discourages conversation, and thus ensures they remain weakly-held opinions. Our views remain biased, near-sighted, and partisan.
Leon Wieseltier of the Brookings Institution put it well when he wrote, in an essay for the Washington Post: “We are all hobbled by the narrowness of inherited circumstances. In our bodies, in our communities, in our social classes, we are all provincials, all in need of correction and amplification by the encounter with other views and practices of life.”
When we view our opinions as infallible, and anyone opposing them as evil, we miss the opportunity to “correct” and “amplify” our beliefs.
When they are isolated, our opinions lose their vitality and become stale strings of words, little more than taglines. In the words of the English philosopher J.S. Mill, for someone to truly hold an opinion, he or she “must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of.” Few realize the necessity of understanding an opponent’s argument to understand their own.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the terrifying rise of Donald Trump. His promises and proclamations are not just antithetical to everything America stands for, they’re also unfeasible. I’ll use just two of his more infamous promises as examples: his promise to build a wall between the United States and Mexico funded by Mexico, and his proposed ban on Muslims. Regarding the former, the absurdity of forcing a foreign country to fund a massive domestic infrastructure project is self-evident. The latter proposal is in defiance of the Constitution, and would require the backing of legislators who have taken an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Trump’s supporters won’t consider the practicality of their candidate’s proclamations because they’re too busy attacking Hillary Clinton, or—when Trump’s numbers slip in the polls—calling the system “rigged” against them. Local State Senator Dick Black said that if Clinton were elected, he believes this will be “the last opportunity that we ever have to have an open vote as a republic.”
The plague of partiality, however, is not unique to the right wing of American politics. An example of divisive rhetoric from the left can be seen in a Columbia Journalism Review profile of David Brooks, a conservative columnist known for looking at current issues with a moral lens. A common criticism of Brooks is that he moralizes too much, or in the words of Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi: “[Brooks] has basically one idea…which is that the poor are badly behaved and need to behave better, and all of these lectures that he gives on moral vocabulary are really a way to express this idea that all of the problems the underprivileged face are their own fault.” Not only does Taibbi caricature Brooks and his motives, he also makes a hyperbolic claim that is impossible to defend. No one has just “one idea” that animates them.
We all have a desperate desire to be understood; we should feel equally compelled to understand. This election season, we must remember the power of empathy, and remember that we need not agree with someone to commiserate with them.
Our political views must be informed by the opposition because no single entity, be it a party or a person, has a monopoly on the truth.
To borrow again from the words of J.S. Mill, “Truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites.”