In junior high school, I got into the habit of creating polls for other students to answer. I recall one of them asking, “What’s your favorite rock band?” And I still remember the top response was the Eagles. This wasn’t particularly surprising in the spring of 1977 in the San Fernando Valley, where the Eagles were huge and you couldn’t get away from “Hotel California” on the radio.
I still enjoy creating polls, unscientific as they are, to find out what people like, what they’re thinking, and so forth. I also like posting “this or that” questions. “Which do you prefer Coke or Pepsi? Ham or turkey? Paper or plastic?” My author wife doesn’t care for these kind of questions, and I don’t really blame her. Life’s usually a lot more complicated than a choice between two clearly defined options. Some people like Coke and Pepsi, others are vegetarians, and state law has all but rendered the paper-or-plastic question obsolete.
Still, it’s easier to think in simple black-and-white terms, to get lazy and assume that one option is the Holy Grail while the alternative is the worst thing this side of a zombie apocalypse. And it’s even more natural to do so in a society built around adversarial systems. Our elections, our sporting events and even our court system encourage us to pick a side and defend it unflinchingly. Attack the opposition relentlessly and never admit weakness; never let them see you sweat.
To paraphrase Freddie Mercury, we want it all, and we want it now.
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So much for humility, patience and compromise, all of which were once widely lauded as virtues. The late Sen. Barry Goldwater once stated that “politics and governing demand compromise,” but compromise has become a four-letter word in modern society, as both sides of any issue fear that giving an inch will cause the other side to take a mile. What’s worse is that they’re usually right, because the “other side” is just as hell-bent on forcing an unconditional surrender they are. When both sides are so intent on hiding their weaknesses and inflating their own credentials, there’s little room to develop even an iota of trust.
The result is gridlock: Nothing gets done. The approval rating for Congress in 2014 was 15 percent, just one percentage point higher than the all-time low registered in the previous year. However, that number doesn’t tell the whole story. Despite the paralysis and widespread disapproval of Congress’ action (or lack thereof), both sides prefer paralysis to giving the proverbial inch. It’s tempting to visualize millions of Americans on one side, staring down 535 members of Congress on the other. It would be more accurate to envision something like a rugby scrum, with roughly half of both Congress and the electorate on one side and the other half pushing back — while each curses the other for failing to yield.
Whoever is not for me is against me.
The thing is though, the absolutes claimed by each side almost never represent reality, whether they be hype worthy of P.T. Barnum or caricatures of some big, bad wolf at the gates. Political proposals don’t answer the question of life, the universe and everything, and few represent any kind of doomsday threat. They address complex issues that demand careful consideration, the weighing of pros and cons, and the setting of priorities.
The rhetoric surrounding hot-button issues seldom reflects the strength of an argument, but rather the stakes, which both sides believe are enormously high. Because they’re so high, advocates ratchet up the exaggerations and mudslinging in the belief that the ends justify the means. There’s simply too much at stake to risk losing. Businesses will close, jobs will be lost, people will be denied medical care and the environment will be severely harmed.
A lot of us end up making decisions based on sales pitches and fear-mongering because it’s the easy thing to do. Listen to the squeaky wheels. Accept apparent confidence as a substitute for evidence and jump on the bandwagon in one direction or the other; let someone else drive us through the quagmire of claims and counter-claims, half-truths and untruths being told for the sake of “the greater good.”
Others among us may brave that quagmire only to find themselves swallowed up by it, unable to claw our way through all the spin in our quest for a glimpse of objectivity. Because the stakes aren’t as high for us as they are for the true believers, we may throw up their hands and say, “It doesn’t really matter that much to me. Why should I bother?” We yield the field to the primary combatants, who continue to insist that only two possible answers exist: yes or no.
But that’s almost never the case. It may feel like we’re stuck in “Hotel California,” but we can leave. We just have to have the courage to open the door, listen beyond the rhetoric and stop being prisoners of our own device.