In response to my last column, which explored the blind and blinding hyper-partisanship that makes our politics so nasty, many readers asked: Well, what can we do about it?
My response: You also expect solutions for your dollar?
To those few who wrote back, having mistaken my honesty for cheek, I added: I understand that our politics has always been rough. In fact, we need strong-willed activists and leaders who can help draw distinctions and highlight differences that clarify our choices. Hard edges are much better for democracy than mush.
The problem now is that the rest of us are failing to do our job of keeping these firebrands in check. Our role – as people who are not advocating for one side but want what’s best for everyone – is to soften their tone and shorten their leashes, by countering their necessary simplicity with a deeper appreciation of the complexity of the challenges we face. Instead of cheering their rhetorical excesses, we must say: You’ve gone too far.
One persistent reader kept pushing: How are we supposed to do that?
I don’t exactly know, but I believe it starts with each of us reminding ourselves every day to practice civility. This extends beyond politeness and tolerance. It means assuming good will on the part of those with whom we differ, expressing a genuine curiosity about how and why they can come to very different conclusions from our own. It means rejecting the Manichean, us versus them rhetoric that dominates our discourse by embracing an almost literary appreciation of how all of us are driven by a jumble of ideas and desires, by needs both material and psychological.
Such open-minded listening usually reveals broad common ground. Turns out, most of us want the same things, including safety, security and harmony. We just have very different ideas about how to achieve them. The empathy born of civility will not erase these differences, but it can mitigate the worst excesses of hyper-partisanship.
This doesn’t sound too hard. If each of us makes the effort, together we can make a difference. But a paradox of humanity is that even as we possess free will and self-determination – we can be whoever we want to be – we are also creatures of our environment. We are trailblazers and we are sheep, herded by impersonal forces of culture.
Voluminous research shows that we are living at a time when America has become splintered at every level – from the personal quest for identity to societal notions of community. The causes are manifold, especially technology that empowers each of us individually but limits face-to-face human contact, to housing patterns that segregate us by race and class. We do not understand one another because we do not know each other (and sometimes even ourselves).
Signs of hope
The hopeful news is that we – not any one of us, but all of us, the collective mind – seem to be acting against the drawbacks of this isolation. In the Triangle, at least three major responses are already taking flight.
The rebirth of downtown Durham and Raleigh, for example, is not just evidence of the increasing demand for good food and sophisticated entertainment but of the growing hunger for human contact. When we turn away from the splendid isolation of sprawling suburbs, we are not just embracing the things cities offer but other people – one reason cities withered was the desire to get away from one another.
The new master plan for the Research Triangle Park – echoing the ideas behind innovation hubs around the country – recognizes that the isolating car culture and stand-alone businesses that made it an icon of suburban corporate culture no longer satisfiy contemporary needs and desires. By building restaurants and retail shops, apartments, hotels and performance spaces, RTP’s leaders are seeking to transform a workplace into a community.
Finally, the North Carolina Museum of Art recently broke ground on a project to transfigure its 164-acre park surrounding its main buildings into one of Raleigh’s premier community gathering spots, drawing hundreds of thousands of people together each year.
How might such developments quell hyper-partisanship?
To the extent that politics reflects rather than shapes our desires, I hope they suggest that we, together, want something more, something better than the fractured, isolating world embodied by divisive rhetoric. The Pollyanna in me hopes that what we want just might be each other.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.