The disturbing events of January 6th laid bare the extent of longstanding polarization and divisions in the United States. The same problem clearly plagues Israel given the recent fourth elections in two years (with a fifth potentially on the horizon). Some of this to be sure, is due to divisive personalities in our politics, but that cannot fully account for the deep animosity we often feel towards those we disagree with. Multiple former U.S. intelligence officials (here is one example) speak about how the number one threat America faces is its own division. Faced with this threat the real question then becomes – what can we do about it? Since, as Lincoln said, “a house divided cannot stand”, I felt it incumbent upon myself to think about how this happened and how it can be remedied. What follows is a list of advice that I give to myself (since who am I to give advice to strangers) but share with you in the hopes that it can spark introspection and honest discussion of the current state of division and how we can perhaps move forward to a more civil and better public discourse.
Policy not Identity:
Although inescapable to a certain extent, we do ourselves a great disservice to public discourse and civil engagement when we define ourselves by our politics. When we define ourselves according to policy outlooks (“liberal”, “likudnik”, “never Trumper”) or party affiliation, we are attaching an emotional/identity component to those policies advanced by that worldview, regardless of whether those policies are best suited for a particular situation. Personally, I try to think about what I believe about the role of government in the economy, in social affairs, in environmental regulation, etc. I like to try and isolate issues and think about what the policy response should be in a case-by-case basis. Now it so happens that often (at least for domestic American politics) my policy prescriptions line up more with those of one particular party, but for me the distinction, even if it exists primarily in my head, is important. It tells me that I am not beholden to what that party says, that I am open to changing my mind on policy issues when I encounter new information.
However, this does not mean one should abandon their political or ideological identity entirely. Given the fact that politics and policy can penetrate the many ways in which people define themselves, rather than deny one’s identity one should give it purpose and definition when it cannot be ignored. This then limits the identity/politics entanglement to a narrower area of focus which in turn makes us less emotional when approaching political subjects outside that area. For example, I am, and will always be, a passionate Zionist. I love the state of Israel, warts and all, and I will always strive to contribute to its well-being. This is for me an emotional matter, one that my sense cannot completely control. But I am also aware that by relating to Zionism in this way I am consciously NOT relating to economics, foreign policy, or social policy in this way. Which is a start.
It is hard to engage in productive civil discourse if the discussion begins with blanket statements, generalizations, or political talking points. Yet I can’t count the number of times I hear things like “conservatives always…” or “liberals think”. First of all, who are you talking about when you characterize such groups? Really? Everybody? Every single one of them? You really think they all carry that same opinion? I know it’s easy to characterize a whole group based on outspoken opinions, but take the time (and I’m telling myself this as well) to understand that the political spectrum is exactly that – a spectrum, and that political parties are comprised of individuals with their own background, values and dreams.
Stick to (and agree on) the Facts:
It is an ever-worrying fact that truth and facts no longer seem to hold the persuasive sway that they once did. In an era of mass information and misinformation it is becoming ever-so challenging to determine what information is reliable or not. That being said, there is a big difference between confirmation bias and selective interpretation of facts and the facts themselves. Two people can and often do take the same pieces of information and draw different conclusions from them. That is legitimate and it can enhance civil and policy discourse. But if we are not starting from the same pieces of information, then there really is nothing to talk about. Therefore, it is critical when discussing policy and politics to ensure that you and your interlocutor are on the same page from the get-go, otherwise you will just end up talking over each other and repeating talking points without actually engaging in substantive discussion. In the age of “truth decay” this task is becoming increasingly difficult.
Having an open mind and Focusing on a Common Humanity:
It can be hard to be open minded and accepting of opinion with which you may disagree strongly. Yet those opinions, and the people behind them, with all their backgrounds, prejudices, fears, concerns, values – exist, and they are not going away. The 81 million Biden voters are not going away, yet neither are the 74 million people who voted for Donald Trump. As Andrew Yang said best “if 68 million people do something it’s vital that we understand it” (68 million at the time of the tweet). Therefore, when we talk to people it is also vital that we listen to them and discover our common humanity. People even on opposite sides of the political spectrum both want what’s best for themselves and their families, and both strongly believe that their values line up with what they perceive as best for the country. Even if those values lead in wildly different directions, the starting assumptions are the same and have the potential to bring us closer if acknowledged.
The Limits of Civil Political Discourse:
Unfortunately, there may be times where civil discourse may not be enough, or possible. There may be times where you find certain opinions so abhorrent, so immoral, that in your perception they cannot be legitimized. That’s fine, but therein lies a danger in that we each have different definitions of what constitutes such intolerable behavior or beliefs. The subjective nature of this determination begs caution in how we go about confronting things with which we cannot abide. If you are truly convinced that a policy or set of opinions is so loathsome that it cannot be contained and must be opposed, then make sure you do so in an acceptable manner.
The problem persists. How do we define what is considered an “acceptable manner” of resisting? If we take an extreme example, something like Nazism is clearly one that should have been opposed by any means possible, and those who resisted Hitler and his vile agenda were rightly deemed as heroes. A more contemporary example is misinformation and fake news which was clearly spread for nefarious purposes. But short of these extremes, very little consensus exists unfortunately in our times over what constitutes a moral red line, and what the appropriate response is when a policy or belief crosses it. Therefore, we must stand up for what we believe is right but do so with the utmost clarity of purpose and in a highly selective manner. If we simply declare that anything the other party does must by definition be opposed, then we are opening a Pandora’s box of hypocrisy and causing tremendous harm to the concepts of good governance and deliberative policy making.
Striking the right balance between respectful discussion and taking a stand difficult and confusing. Yet striking the right balance is of utmost importance if we are to overcome the crippling divisions we face. I can only speak from personal experience when I say it is one of the most difficult and persistent challenges I encounter. Hopefully the advice I have given myself over the years – thinking in terms of policy and not identity, finding common ground, avoiding generalizations and keeping an open mind, while being mindful of (but also constantly evaluating) my own core values red lines, can only help facilitate healthier public discourse. May we all be fortunate enough to see the fruits of productive conversations and good policy benefit us in the future.