Divided We Fall: Saying No to Political Labels and Yes to Civil Discourse

Four years ago I wrote a blog post that is my most viral post to date. The title? “To My Friends Who Voted for Trump but Claim They’re Not Racist

The visits literally shut down my blog for days after the 2016 election.

I sat down to write it after I’d been stewing in an emotional fury. I felt shock about the amount of people who voted for a man I worried would literally bring down our country. One I feared would launch us into a civil war with his flippant statements that emboldened racists.

Four years later I’m re-reading my words and I can honestly say I feel about the same. For years I’ve shared how standing up to racism and bigotry is important. And in recent months I’ve said as much about the conversations surrounding racism and support for Black lives.

However, this time around an election year some things are different. Where there was shock and disappointment after the last election, this time I feel like I have a better grasp of how divided we are, and where a lot of people stand.

For the most part now we know who proudly supports who and we know what life is like under his administration. But over the last four years our nation has become more divided, on seemingly every issue. I mean we are even debating face masks and social distancing during a pandemic. 

People are expected to choose between things like “the wall”, or “not enforcing illegal immigration”. What if you are somewhere in between? Perhaps you want secure borders and more opportunities for legal immigration. And this is just one example in a slew of issues.

Don’t Let Them Label You 

My whole life people have tried to put me into a box. “You’re black so you must…” “You’re Mormon, so that means you believe…” “You voted Democrat, so you are…” “You’re married to a police officer, so you think…”

We’ve become a society fixated on labels and placing people into coordinating boxes with monolithic beliefs.

LGBTQIA+… That’s 7+ labels for sexual identity. But when it comes to political affiliation we pretty much just get R and D. What about the space between?

Because of these labels we automatically categorize people based on a social media update. If it’s about their support for Black Lives Matter then we throw them into a box that also believes rioting is justified, face masks are crucial and non-essential businesses should remain closed during a pandemic.

If someone posts a status update with their disdain for facemasks we assume they don’t believe Black lives matter, they really want kids to be back in school, and they’re wondering why in the world no one is talking about human trafficking.

But what about the people somewhere in the middle? And I’m not talking about people straddling a line who aren’t taking a stand for anything. But people who dip their toes into both boxes. Maybe they believe Black lives matter, the importance of protesting, and think it’s ok for churches to be able to hold services during a pandemic. 

Maybe they would prefer to keep their children at home for school for the sake of teachers, and they understand some children in underserved communities need that lunch from school, or need school as a temporary escape from an abusive home life.

We shouldn’t make assumptions anyway, but because people love their labels, we have to let go of our fear of standing out with a different opinion.

The people who fall in this middle space (and if I were to take a wild guess, I’d predict it’s most of us) have a lot of extra work to do. We have to not only feel educated about our stances but actually be educated. Instead of reading sources from right or left leaning media, we need to read from both to be more informed about where either side is coming from. Our opinions can’t come in simple 140 character updates but well thought out, explained positions. Sometimes defending and refuting multiple positions. 

This space is just as important as any other and we need to own it. And be ready to speak with not just our emotions, but back them up with facts.

Question Everything

In the past I’ve said many of the problems in our society could be solved if we just listened to one another. If we listened to understand, not to reply. Now I believe we also need to learn. Because we want people to listen to our feelings, but often we ignore facts. And while feelings matter, and we should all have empathy for one another, ultimately fact checking is a HUGE missing piece in today’s social media realm. We’ll post a trendy meme on Instagram without actually verifying the information listed on the pretty background. 

We are sharing unconfirmed articles with misleading headlines. We pass along half truths to try to prove our point. 

From facemasks, to abortions, police shootings, open boarders, to human trafficking, there is a lot of misinformation circulating, and a lack of factual evidence in these heated conversations. Unfortunately this can become very dangerous in the hands of decision makers.

In my community the city council just approved $150 million worth of budget cuts to our local police department. A decision made in less than a week in response to events elsewhere in the country. They didn’t have a single joint meeting gathering input from police or other first responders, social workers or community members. 

These decisions were made without planning how the funds will specifically be put to work, or expected consequences of the decision. 

We need more level-headed thinkers willing to listen, learn, and put in the work to do the right thing. Not the trendy thing.  

Facts and Feelings Matter

Politics are very emotionally based right now, which have a purpose, but also should be taken out of the equation sometimes for a more levelheaded conversation. 

We may feel at a high risk of your child being taken from you by a stranger while you’re shopping at the local supefrmarket because of the human trafficking memes on facebook. But evidence reveals it’s actually more likely for a relative or someone you know to do the bidding.

We may feel like police are extremely dangerous and out to get minorities just for existing because of what celebrities are sharing on Instagram. But statistically you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than be unarmed and killed by an officer.

You may feel terrified when you ride a commercial airplane, worried it will go down, because of the 24 hour news cycle of a plane that went down, but you’re far more likely to die in a car accident.

Of course our feelings are valid. But they don’t negate facts. While any case of human trafficking, police brutality, or accidents are horrible, there is danger in inflating alarm.

Make Our Own Memes

When I’m scrolling my Facebook news feed and notice a friend has shared their far right or far left opinion, a quick glance in their comments section is usually full of people in agreement. Evidence we are often yelling into our own echo chambers with people who think like we do. Reinforcing up our extreme beliefs.

Lifting up one side and putting down another doesn’t come with the same challenges as defending a unique position.

For those of us who perhaps fall somewhere in between, we have to be prepared to take backlash from both extremes.

For example, if someone says they are pro-choice, one might automatically assume they are pro-abortion and allowing abortions without restrictions. But perhaps they are pro-choice through the first trimester. Does that mean they are pro-life or pro-choice? Both? Or neither? There we go with the labels again.

If someone says they are against defunding the police it doesn’t necessarily mean they are against police reform. But perhaps they believe there is a better means to that end.

We can’t have these discussions without having deeper conversations and considerations. We need to hold more space for these positions that are somewhere in between, speak up, and follow through when it’s no longer trendy.

Right now we’ll march at a protest, but not attend local council meetings. We’ll post a passionate update on social media, but not send in our input to the local school board. 

If we want more civil discourse perhaps we need to be the ones to start it.

Civil Discourse

We spend all this time going to school. Some of us go into debt and spend tens of thousands of dollars on an education. We graduate knowing a lot about math, but little about effectively communicating with others. 

If we can’t learn how to collaborate in groups to get things done, act ethically, research facts and work and play nice with others, does it really matter how many credits you earned in statistics?

But how? Facts, emotions, this is all so complicated!

When you get into a debate with someone but no one has the facts straight, it can make a conversation very difficult. But disagreeing about facts, or having different opinions about how you interpret them isn’t necessarily what leads to extreme division. That hostility happens when those differences are perceived as threatening someone’s identity or life experience. When we can have disagreements including facts, without denying the experiences of others, it can calm the emotional threat. Then people have the breathing room to consider new perspectives.

It’s a delicate balance. John Wood Jr. said “Hyper-emphasis on the importance of facts strikes against our ability to properly understand those who disagree with us. It allows us to believe that their intuitions deserve our derision and condensation. The assumption that fidelity to fact is synonymous with truth, in turn, leads to intellectual atrophy and frustrates both empathy and intellectual growth”

In other words, we know facts matter, but we shouldn’t shove them down each other’s throats either. Based on our lived experience, we won’t all interpret the facts the same way. To have civil discourse we have to be willing to explain our interpretation of facts in a way others can understand based on their own values. And be willing to listen, learn and grow ourselves. 

Above all I think it’s important to remember the impact we have on individual lives.

Not to go off on a tangent, but the other day I was driving down the road and a guy flipped me off. I’m still thinking about that. I kinda smiled and waved back at him and I wonder if he feels like a jerk, or maybe he’s long forgotten about me. Either way, I believe every person we come into contact with, whether we know it or not, we have the potential to make an impact on. We may touch someone’s life for a small moment, but leave a big impact forever. Let’s not take that for granted.

Divided We Fall

I find it a little funny how we get into heated debates with people online who–if it weren’t for Facebook–we’d have no idea where they stood politically. We are unfriending to “teach them a lesson”, or perhaps for our emotional sanity; Either way, further shaping our echochamber. 

Meanwhile those people we disagree with are still out there, believing what they believe. Shopping next to you at the grocery store, and sending their kids to school with your children. 

When it all comes down to it these people may still show up in your hour of need. Donate to your fundraiser, or bring you dinner when your spouse is in the hospital. They may stop and help you on the side of the road when you are in an accident. Heck, buy girl scout cookies from your kid. Are we screening all of these people in our lives for political affiliation?

Political affiliation aside, that stuff is pretty dang important… Especially the cookies.

We have to do better than this.

Abraham Lincoln said a house divided amongst itself cannot stand. 

Here’s the funny thing about history… It doesn’t look like history when you’re living it. Our country has made it through some pretty rough crap. I believe we can make it through this too.

With less than three months until the election I expect an uptick in political discussions. I hope we take the time to look beyond a handful of issues we’ve always cared about, and do a little more digging. Push ourselves to seek more knowledge; for growth. 

Instead of sticking our heads into the sand, let’s plunge our heads into books, and education. On matters from the national level down to our own local communities. 

And I hope we hear more from the quiet ones. People who have been too scared to admit they don’t fit into a preordained label. It may be a hunch, but I have a feeling there are a lot of us. And that those are exactly the voices we need to hear.

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  1. I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve been referring to it as nuance. Rarely is anything on one end of the spectrum. Educated discourse is what we need. And the courage to admit when you don’t know something or aren’t certain is also valuable. Important decisions need time to make.

    I would like to gather information on police brutality specifically with regard to POC. I’m not certain, but I suspect the chance of being subjected to unwarranted abuse may be higher than your comparison. But again, it’s a discussion I’d welcome having!

    I respect all you do! Thank you for taking the time to write this!

  2. Every time I read your work, I realize how eerily we are alike. ALL OF THIS. My fave line “We need more level-headed thinkers willing to listen, learn, and do the right thing.”

    The desire to want to learn anything new or do ANYTHING with new information is largely gone and that to me, is so very sad.

    We need more of this. I’m calling myself out and committing to speaking out more. It’s hard, but so necessary.

  3. I’m happy you decided to step out of your bubble even if it was for a brief moment. Your words are worth saying and being heard. Our personal perspectives color every decision we make and how we react in situations. They cause people to view the exact same incidents differently. I have first hand experience of this. We need to take this into account and that’s why empathy needs to play such a vital role in politics right now. Also, Fact check, fact check, fact check information before putting it out there. Misinformation is rampant. Thank you for saying this.! In this moment, We all need to be teachers . …Share our knowledge and wisdom. And teach in a way the others can understand. If they don’t get what your saying the first time, don’t write that student off…. change your method. If nothing else let your voice be heard and plant the seeds for growth in the future. Thank you for doing your part!

  4. This, all this. I have been saying for a few years now (even before the last election) that people have lost the ability to rationally discuss.

  5. YES!! To all of this. I feel so stuck in the middle and it’s caused a lot of issues for me–arguments with my father (who is very much in a homogenous bubble like you mentioned in your other post) and frustrations with the constant hateful stuff that is shared on social media by friends who I otherwise very much respect. I’ve tried not to unfriend or snooze anyone to stay informed, but it’s only gotten worse since the Kamala Harris announcement so for my own mental health I may have to soon. I grew up a Christian Republican in a very white town, and now find myself questioning so much when I see a totally different perspective in my current racially and economically diverse town. I know that poverty isn’t just for the “lazy” welfare families, but for those who work multiple jobs and still can’t make ends meet–and in our current environment, that probably also means that their kids won’t get the proper support when they’re remote learning, because their parents have essential jobs out of the home and they can’t do it all. It’s not as simple as “going to school” or “learning a trade” because life is messy and not everyone has support. I’ve realized that in a few years, my 12yo son’s friends and basketball teammates could be the next black teenage victim of a racist incident. I’m a Christian who hates that abortion exists, but also recognizes that making it illegal would create a whole new set of social problems. My own father lumped me in with socialists when I expressed a preference for some sort of reasonable health care system so people don’t need to consider their bank account before getting needed treatment for them or their kids. And the mask thing kills me because I live in an area that actually got their act together, and the only real difference I can see is masks. It’s a simple thing we can do for one another that might actually get us out of this, so I’m willing to try anything! I am just so tired of this all-encompassing political environment and the all-or-nothing attitude of both sides.

    I don’t love Biden as a candidate, if I’m being honest, but I absolutely cannot vote for Trump. I simply can’t be a part of continuing the division and hatred and self-centeredness. I don’t even know how to explain him to my kids. I think in some cases Trump has been roadblocked by other politicians and unfairly treated by the media (they jump on every stupid little thing and it makes it hard to see any good he might be doing), but at the same time he has done himself NO favors with how he has handled himself or his choice of words. He has created so much damage and chaos all on his own, and his handling of the pandemic alone is enough for me to be completely done. I keep looking at this like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In a normal election I’d be looking at the “nice to have” stuff at the top of the pyramid, but this time it’s about fundamental health, safety, and happiness. Until those are satisfied, nothing else will matter. Regardless of whether or not he’s actually capable of running the country, I feel that Trump has alienated so many people that he is simply unable at this point to unite us or properly lead. Yes, some people won’t allow themselves to be led by him, but that group is so much bigger now than it has been under any other president, for so many reasons. We need a fresh start.

    I worry so much that even if Trump loses, our current social media and biased media-fueled climate won’t go back to a kinder, gentler place. I think we’ve crossed some sort of threshold where things will always be this nasty and divisive, and it truly worries me. I actually just wish political parties would go away and we’d be forced to look at issues individually and consider all sides to decide what we truly believe and not just lump in with a party. I’d love to see how Congress would do without parties, when they just have to rely on their own conscience. I read once that if you agree with everything your party stands for, you’re probably actually brainwashed, because no one should align on everything because each of our personal experiences are so different.

    Sorry, this is really long-winded of me, but I, too, have struggled so much with this and am just totally in agreement with everything you wrote. You are definitely not alone in this. Thank you for being a voice of reason.

  6. Amy above you said this so well and Jennifer this was soooo needed! The division makes me sick to my stomach and it’s hard to see children growing up in this world. In Hamilton, TJ says “we smack each other in the press, and we don’t print retractions” that’s our society today. You’re either this side or that and aren’t allowed to prefer and believe a bit of this and a bit of that. I agree w Amy that we’ve crossed a threshold with this current divide but I’m such an optimist that I’m hoping and praying we can find a way.

  7. What an incredible piece about the deep need to listening well and learning … it is essential. My husband and I have the great gift of facilitating Common Ground conversations on Race in America; we believe that establishing Common Ground through truthful facts & information, combined with interactive dialogue & conversation, is transformative. I would love to talk more with you!

  8. Thank you! I’ve always stayed silent in these debates because I don’t fit the mold in most things and I can’t handle the hatred shared on both sides of the extremes. So I know I need to be willing to sit in the discomfort a bit more in hopes to help people see another viewpoint. One they may or may not have considered.

  9. It is a tricky balance, because what I am finding for myself is that I want to be in conversation with people from differing opinions, but that is very different from allowing ANGRY people with differing opinions to fill my feeds. The challenge is in finding those people who want to learn together while letting go of people who just want to yell their opinion louder and louder with no desire to understand any other point of view.

    I hope that through this time we can find those conversations, and I hope that we can move toward a more collaborative space as a country rather than this winner-take-all mentality we are living with now. Thanks for this post- I think you are right that a huge population of people are remaining silent out of a desire to not be attacked for not fitting the mold.

  10. This is so on point. And yes listening to learn and understand instead of listening to reply!! I feel that listening is such an important and underrated skill that isn’t taught enough. I think listening leads to empathy and would do so much for strife in our country.
    Thank you so much for writing this! And a silent middle grounder, this helps me find a voice.

  11. Thank you so much for saying what so many of us are thinking! I hope more quiet voices like ours are heard in waves. It’s time.

  12. I love this. As usual, you have such a great way with words! I spend so much time wondering where all the moderates have gone! I like to think there are more of us out there than I realize, and it’s just that the extremes from both sides are SO much louder than the rest of us. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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