Where does division come from? In a political system that is designed for every voice to be heard, disagreements and divisions are arguably inevitable. The American political system was constructed in this way, whereby each citizen is free to voice their own opinion. It has been a shining example of what a robust democracy looks like, complete with checks and balances at every turn in order to guarantee law and order. Yet, many political analysts and citizens alike remark that we are more polarized as a country than we ever have been before.
The storming of the U.S Capitol by Trump supporters seems to be the culmination of this polarity. Although this heinous act of terror was committed by a fringe group of the far-right, many more moderate Trump supporters looked the other way the last few months as he touted the inaccurate assertion that the election was rigged. Kelly Loeffler, one of the Republican incumbents for a Georgia Senate seat, happily endorsed Trump’s push to object to Joe Biden’s electors in Congress without any indication that they were invalid. Furthermore, some of these supporters, who by all fair definitions would not be characterized as “radical” or “fringe,” even believe the baseless “election was stolen” theory themselves despite the lack of credible evidence or legal recourse to support the claim.
So how did we get here? I for one posit that it is a complex mixture of political, social, and technological trends that have been brewing for a decade or two, such as the increased populist sentiments heard by politicians, our now novel personalized view of news and information spoon-fed to us by social media and other news outlets, the perceived fear of being “canceled” for offending the wrong persons or industries that have draped themselves in safe spaces, and the “othering” of people that don’t vote for the same political party due to a supreme loss of nuance. This last trend is most notable in the Trump years. Whichever theories one surmises, you needn’t look very far to see that American society is fractured. But are we beyond repair?
The overload of information all of us receive on a daily basis does not do any favors to the issue at hand. The constant bombardment of news stories, political scandals or mishaps, and statements by politicians or other important figures floods our headspace without even a chance for a safety raft. We are drowning in information, without any occasion to discuss, debrief, or analyze what has happened. The art of conversation is being lost on us, which is blatantly ironic if you believe that it could serve as a remedy to our current societal division. I am a proponent of this belief. If we had more opportunities to sit and discuss with people who think and view the world differently than us, we might just have a chance at not running our country into the ground. This week we experienced an unprecedented political event, in the midst of a longer unprecedented global pandemic. We need time to have solid and useful conversations about these happenings, and moreover with folks that don’t agree with our views.
I sense that it was always a trying task to have a discussion with someone with whom you disagree about sensitive issues. Innately, humans have defense mechanisms against perceived danger, which manifest in body language, rise in body temperature, stress, and more. However, these heated debates have occurred across the globe throughout the march of history. It is from a conversation that we find progress, build bridges, and solve the most drastic problems facing our communities. Perhaps these important exchanges can be performed in our homes, at family gatherings, or in community centers. Or they may require one to venture out to foreign places.
As a practitioner of Judaism, I am constantly amazed at the relevance of our tradition’s stories and lessons. We begin reading the book of Exodus this past Shabbat. Moses is undoubtedly our main character. Our greatest teacher, the insights from his character throughout the Torah have provided Jews with extraordinary ethical sensibilities. The plethora of Moses’ leadership qualities cannot be understated, nonetheless, there is one we read about in this Parsha that I find quite remarkable. Moses made a decision to act against injustice when he defended the Hebrew slave from the Egyptian’s abuse. Moses, this Prince of Egypt who was raised in the halls of luxury, never to work a day in his life. Moses, a palace-pampered brat who could have anything he desired at the drop of a hat. The Torah does not give too much mention to this episode, but reading it into context can give us a deeper appreciation for Moses and his moral decisions.
A little while later, the Torah shares that Moses approached two Hebrew slaves that were quarreling. Moses asks “Why are you going to strike your friend?” (Exodus 2:13) This is an important act that should not be overlooked or understated. It is an example of Moses reaching out to someone who is completely different from him, someone who thinks and perceives the world differently, who holds different views of the country they share, who holds different political views about Pharoah, and who holds different religious views as well. Moses and these Hebrew slaves quite literally have nothing in common, in fact, we are not even positive if Moses knew he was a Hebrew at this point in time. To concentrate on this question is to miss the point entirely. Moses drew near folks who were the complete opposite of him socio-economically, politically, and culturally. Let us keep in mind that Moses performed this inspiring act before he ever encountered the Divine at the Burning Bush.
Are we as divided as Pharaoh’s Egypt and its Hebrew slaves? The optimism in me screams “no!” Nevertheless, we are growing more and more divided each and every day. If one positive outcome can result from the January 6 insurrection, let it be that our country can unite together against terrorism in order to maintain our democratic republic. Democracy is a fragile beast, and it should never be taken for granted. Any other lesson one may perceive from this tainted day in our history should be secondary to democracy’s frailty. What we witnessed on January 6th was nothing short of a stress test for our democracy, and we nearly failed. Looking forward, let us enact our inner Moses; in order to go out into the world and speak with others who may be our opposite.