Cambrian: Opinion

In demonizing each other, we’re forgetting how to think

Abraham Lincoln, seen in this portrait, famously declared that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Abraham Lincoln, seen in this portrait, famously declared that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

I had the pleasure of speaking to a gathering in Cambria this past week about the subject of “fake news,” but the subject — as such things often do with me — sent my mind scurrying in other directions, too.

One of those directions was back to Rodney King and the question he asked during the 1992 Los Angeles riots: “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?”

These days, the answer appears to be, increasingly, “no.”

The question is, why?

My father, David Provost, a longtime professor of political science, worked in Congress for a time and campaigned for the state Assembly in 1962. A Republican, he recalled learning about the art of compromise by observing House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, a Democrat, interact with his colleagues from across the aisle. Back then, he said, “working across the aisle” wasn’t an empty election year promise; it was something people in Washington actually did.

He told me lawmakers on opposite sides of an issue would debate that issue fiercely on the floor, then go out for a beer or a cup of coffee afterward. I was reminded of a boxing match in which two opponents trash talk at the weigh in, throw haymakers at each other for 10 or 12 rounds, but touch gloves before the action starts and embrace at the final bell.

At one point, my father suggested that I apply for a job with a member of the House. I didn’t follow that suggestion, but the point is this: The member he recommended was, unlike my father, a Democrat.

Nowadays, it often seems, people on opposite sides of an issue would rather keep punching after the bell and would sooner throw a beer in an opponent’s face than sit down at a bar together. Antipathy and mistrust seem to have replaced mutual respect.

Demonizing our opponents

This brings me back to Rodney King’s question — and my own: why?

First of all, it’s easier than ever to surround ourselves with people who agree with us — and tune out everyone else. The more you listen to people who agree with you (and only those people), the more they affirm your positions and the less flexible you’ll become, whether you identify as a progressive, conservative, libertarian or whatever. And the less willing you’ll be to listen to the other side. Eventually, you’ll stop communicating with that “other side” altogether.

These days, we have so many options on TV, online and elsewhere that we can choose our own referees (liberal webmasters, conservative talk radio hosts, etc.) for pickup games against phantom opponents. We won’t allow our real opponents on the same court with us, because that would mean we’d have to engage them.

To use another analogy, we’d rather go to a shooting range and blast holes in targets bearing the likeness of our enemy than we would to engage in an actual duel.

When our opponents become mere targets in our own minds, it’s easy to dehumanize them in this way. Perhaps that helps explain a recent survey by Public Policy Polling in which 45 percent of those who voted for Donald Trump said they would approve of the president shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. That would be just as scary if someone gave the same hypothetical license to Barack Obama.

Dehumanizing “the enemy” is something people do when they’re at war, not when they’re trying to work together for the common good.

Label and dismiss

When we demonize our supposed enemies, we tend to label them, dismiss them.and tune them out.

The current president isn’t the only person who’s used labels in an attempt to dismiss those he disagrees with. Other people dismiss their opponents as “racists” or “homophobes” or “communists,” “fascists” or even “traitors.” If we don’t take the time to look beyond such labels, they become our reality, whether they’re accurate or not.

Think about a few of today’s pressing issues for the moment. Does anyone want higher taxes? Or more expensive health care? Or deforestation? Or fewer jobs? Or war? Or homelessness? Or crime?

Most people would immediately say they oppose all those things. But we’ve become so preoccupied with reinforcing our own positions — and with our distrust of those who think differently — that we’ve stuck pointy sticks in our own eyes that keep us from seeing any validity to opposing points of view. Environmentalists must just hate business; and business people must really want to destroy the environment.

None of this is true. People just have different priorities. But as long as we only listen to those who share our own point of view, we’ll keep viewing those on the other side with suspicion at best and, at worst, as “the enemy.”

Lincoln’s warning

A few years before the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Either it will tear itself down from the inside, or its factions will be so focused on fighting each another that something on the outside — a real enemy — will seize the moment and attack.

The Civil War was fought over one major, intractable point of contention. Today, in contrast, we face not a single issue but a pervasive climate of mistrust and demonization that spans a broad spectrum of issues. It’s not an issue we need to resolve, but an outlook we need to change.

If we don’t, the results will not be pretty.