The first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden on October 20 erupted into an exchange of interruptions and insults. While many substantive issues were posed during the debate, including the economy during the pandemic, health care, and civil unrest, the height of it all may have been depicted in Biden’s words to Trump, snapping as the president interrupted him, “Will you shut up, man?” How far can we take this reality of interruption and insult into our daily, American lives? When is enough, enough? We can discover this by looking at our options.
One option we have is to shut people down who do not share our political beliefs. This may be achieved by speaking over someone, refusing to allow them to share their belief. We do not have to look far to see this reality. Often, on CNN or Fox and Friends, when political opposition is featured on air, civil efforts toward discourse breakdown into political food fights and/or shouting matches Another option we have, especially through the use of social media, is to unadd, block, or dissociate with someone who has an opposing political view. For example, in a study conducted by the privacy firm Comparitec, [in America] nearly 52 percent dumped friends over politics and, overall, 44 percent unfriended anybody with opposite opinions. Shutting people down for their political beliefs isn’t a bad thing, but it is simply creating the circles you want to associate with.
Another option we have is to be open and responsive to those with whom we have different political beliefs. This is much harder. We are forced to restrain ourselves on topics we feel deeply invested. In order to listen and respond to different beliefs, we must maintain control over our emotions, even when we desire to rebuke or lash out against someone who sounds ignorant or naïve. To think about this practically, what if someone comes from a conservative background where all they’ve known or been exposed to is that life must be conceived if it has been created in the womb? Or if someone grew up in a poor neighborhood and therefore steadfastly supports social safety net programs? We do not know all and everything someone is through our first impression of them, of their political beliefs. As members of our American democracy, maybe it is essential to engage with others who have different political views so that we, through our discourse, may create a more perfect union.
Outside the stances of being for or against dissenting beliefs, maybe it’s not Americans fault in general. In their book Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman propose that the medias has a profit function: they need to make money. In this function, medias often frame and prime their news relative to viewers’ beliefs. As a result, Americans are polarized to further extremes of the political spectrum not due to their own merit, but due to the polarizing effects of the partisan media around them.
Contrarily, sociologists and political psychologists have recently pointed out that ordinary citizens are not simple victims of political polarization; rather, our own self-enclaving political habits may actually be driving it. We cannot blame our inability to listen to others on the institutions, which seem polarizing, but we must look to our own patterns of behavior to discover any intolerance and extremism that resides within.
While there are two opposing views regarding political tolerance, it cannot be disregarded that we need to start finding a way to talk about issues without insult and interruption, or without hostility or instigation. Well before the first two original parties came into being in America, the Federalist party and the Democratic-Republican party, our country was founded upon the juxtaposing climates of urban and rural, city-dweller and country-person. From Georgia to New Hampshire, the mysteriousness of how environments informed belief was existent from the onset of our founding. While these urban and rural environments eventually came to be associated with the beliefs of Democrats and Republicans, we are at a political moment when we need to put aside our differences and find commonality: mutual love, assurance, and trust. While we surely and certainly have to understand the facts first, how can we even begin to navigate the complexities of civil unrest? Or climate change? Or the economy during the pandemic? or health care reform or a higher minimum wage? if we can’t even acknowledge another person’s point of view. For even in the view we find most opposite to ours, there may be a nugget of truth. In the wise words of John Stuart Mill: “It is only through the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”