Dr. Bob Deutsch
Now that Trump has been indicted, arraigned, fingerprinted and pleaded not guilty, he will continue to spew his hatred of anyone or anything not of direct benefit to himself. After all, he was not really president of the United States. While Trump occupied the Oval Office he acted as if he was CEO of America, Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Trump corporation — power and profit his only goal.
The question now is: what does America do to reduce its polarization? The answer to this question will impact the future of the republic.
Polarity rules the day. There are many reasons for this, but one reason never mentioned is America’s sense of time, expressed in its need for fast solutions. The American credo is “get it done, now.” The problem with fast is that fast often leads to reducing a problem into variables that are only visible and concrete. Yet, neuroscience has shown that each person constructs their own experiences. Absolute objectivity is a false idol. The brain makes guesses and uses what it feels about its past to make predictions about the future.
Relatedly, facts and data shrink in the face of belief. There’s strong scientific evidence to support this. There are more connections going up from the Limbic System (the emotion center) to the Frontal Lobes (the data processing center), than the other way around, and beliefs are based on emotion. As Bertrand Russell said, “Most people go through life with a whole world of beliefs that have no sort of rational justification…People’s opinions are mainly designed to make them feel comfortable; truth is a secondary consideration.”
So, objectivity is at best elusive, and emotion prevails over logic. Is there any question why we’re so divided and why the suggestion of a “national divorce” can, remarkably, resonate with twenty percent of the American population?
A consequence of all this polarity is that a brightness has been eliminated from many people’s demeanor — they are tightly wound and seek relief more than satisfaction. And when this sort of thing happens, the possibility of creative thinking is diminished, as part of creativity is having hope that something beautiful and elegant is possible. Nowadays, fewer people are dreamers, and that never suggests a positive prognosis.
The question is, “Is there anything we can do about it?” On the assumption that we can come to some consensus that the only way to win at Culture War is not to play the game, is it possible to move toward being less polarized? I’m reminded of something Vaclav Havel said. The Czech playwright who became president of the Czech Republic told a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress, “What the world needs now is less explanation and more understanding.” His point was that true conciliation comes not from convincing those who disagree with you that you’re right but from learning why they believe what they do and incorporating that perspective into a workable third perspective.
But understanding takes time and energy. It takes the acknowledgment that “get it done, now” is an unworkable approach to such a pervasive task. It takes acceptance that labels such as Red versus Blue apply only to presumed political demarcations rather than an appreciation of current antagonisms as they are first experienced — on-the-ground in real time. Political terms offer no vision regarding how America can begin to escape the word-prison — the restrictive narratives — that keeps the shouting and blame-game alive and festering. If the current divisions are looked at only as legislative, management, or judicial problems, no progress is realistic. Our current method of problem solving is explaining things in a single dimension, never taking the time to look under the hood of how the complexities, contradictions, and ironies of real life operate, and instead going for immediate expedience. If there is an immigration problem on America’s southern border, build a wall. A wall is a tangible thing. Problem Solved!
Immersed in such an immature problem-solving mode, people often tend to go for the easy extreme. The choice becomes either/or, not the creative “and.” But when complexity is high, creative thinking demands a recognition that most things are not made of one piece. Most things are a mash-up. Life is composed of cashmere and sawdust. As composer Wynton Marsalis said when speaking of jazz, it is “a combination of the raucousness of Saturday night and the piety of Sunday morning.”
“And” is the ultimate bridging tool. David Chang combines our love of ice cream and our love of breakfast cereal, and people line up around the block to get a taste. James Brown blends blues and gospel and jazz, and funk is born. TikTok capitalizes on our fascination with home video and snarky commentary, and a billion and a half people can’t get enough.
Regarding the problem of culture war and polarization, “and” is a potent solution.
If America is to make any progress on this front, places and times need to be created in which people can talk to each other and begin to get acquainted — as real people and not as two- dimensional stick figures who simply react to hot buttons. We need to see the “and” in each other and in ourselves as a community. Conversation is a unique tool to bring minds closer together.
You might recall when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in 1985 in Geneva, Switzerland for discussions about arms reduction. Unexpectedly, the two leaders cut short formal talks to take what became known as “A Walk in the Woods,” opting for private discussions with only interpreters and no press releases. Not all that surprisingly, under these conditions, a good atmosphere was created. Of course, the two leaders didn’t solve everything during that walk, but they acknowledged that the conversation they had would open the door for more meetings to come.
A start to recognizing our shared humanness might be achieved by bringing people together from each side of the tribal divide and from up and down the social ladder — from the middle and not from the vehement extremes from the right or the left — to talk about a real-life situation in which each has felt misjudged or slighted. Sure, what will ensue will include arguments and insults, but what is also likely to ensue is a level of empathy that can never be achieved as long as we’re allowed to continue to ignore the “and” that unites us. If one goes into such conversations willingly, it’s difficult to not be moved, at least a little, by expressed experiences of loss and longing, which everyone has on every side. When we begin to acknowledge each other as individuals rather than positions, we have no choice but to acknowledge that we are all complex beings, that we all have our “ands,” and that there is a great deal in common with how we are complex and in what comprises us.
Perhaps a forum put forth by a newspaper, a magazine, a television news channel, a presidential library or a literary entity membered by fiction and non-fiction writers, could provide a venue for the real-talk sessions suggested here. For example, such an entity could establish the setting for the sessions and produce an edited, televised documentary of the sessions. Also, a podcast series could be created and have rotating anchor persons, selected roundtable guests, including real-talk session participants, discussing the issues and the content (said and un-said) of the real-talk talk. A book encapsulating the whole experience is another natural outcome of this initiative. And it’s not fool-hearty to think about real-talk as an ongoing endeavor. America and Americans need a recurring context to start having a national conversation not of partisan pronouncements or Q&A couplets in town halls, but of genuine discourse wherein the process to go underneath the easy surface of what is thought about as driving life becomes more familiar to the American lexicon. There is nothing more pregnant with possibility than the improvisational art of conversation.
Such conversations are what a warlike primitive tribe in the Amazon, the Yanomami, do as part of a ritual to end a war. In the Amazon, by mutual agreement, after some gatekeeping preliminaries, one tribal leader visits the enemy’s territory to engage with the host leader. First, the two leaders exchange an item of bodily decoration and then crouch with knees bent facing each other. In such postures, they start taking turns chanting, the goal of which is to find something in common. At first, commonalities are mundane and predictable. But the two leaders continue, looking for a joint familiar that is more recessed, more metaphoric. It might even be something they each did but in totally different contexts. Suddenly there is a visible release of tension that the unexpected — even the comedic — can supply. After all, a comedy is comedic because it contains a previously unexpressed truth.
Helping people to open their minds even a bit is asking a great deal — it asks people to modify a belief system. But that is what we must do. People must recalibrate their familiar without totally negating their familiar. That is the task of converting absolutist minds into more open, artful minds that can go beyond what they perceive as reality to imagine a future of what could be. America is divided, but we are absolutely united in at least one way: that each of us is a product of our “ands.” It is now incumbent upon us to acknowledge this by turning a shouting match into a conversation. At first glance you might think this suggestion is crazy. But at the very least it is no crazier than leaving the current predicament to continue as is.