Nuance, context, facts, culture: 10 terms to (hope to) define America and Americans as we move forward

I've been thinking of the best ways to enunciate the fears I feel, and that others I speak to feel, under the coming Trump presidency. We've been having this tribe problem on social media, so let me offer a longer look, one that hopefully brings people who disagree together in discussion.

Note that my purpose here is not to change anybody's mind about your political party or candidate. It's to remind you that we're on the same team. As Americans, we have three different ideals we're working with. Let's oversimplify a little so that we can understand them but then get to the real point.

(1) Bootstrapping and the American dream. Think of everything you learned in school growing up, and everything you ever saw on film about immigration. From the California Gold Rush of the 1840s to the Mousekowitz family in "An American Tail," America has been sold as a place where, if you're willing to to the work, you can do anything and be anything. It turns out we have some systemic issues that don't allow for that.

(2) 40 acres & a mule / A chicken in every pot & a car in every garage. "Forty acres and a mule" was actually meant to be reparations for slavery, and was repealed very quickly after Lincoln's death. The point really isn't a "handout," it's a dream of property ownership for everyone. Hoover's 1928 campaign slogan, on the other hand, hints at a prosperity that many families have never been able to realize.

(3) A melting pot / A salad bowl. When I was in school, we started to change the language of America as "a melting pot" — a place where people of different backgrounds came together to create a new, American culture — to that of "a salad bowl" — a place where people of different backgrounds mixed with each other but kept their identities. It turns out lettuce and carrots and celery and tomatoes sometimes have a problem living and working together.

The common element running through all of these promises is that they're for everybody. But they're not. There are some things some people simply cannot do because the systems we have in place work against them.

With that behind us, I propose en emphasis on these ten terms as we move forward and live — and hopefully grow — together. If you feel like you "won" with this election, you should read this to learn about others around you. If you feel like you "lost" with this election, you should read this to learn about others around you. If you've moved beyond winning and losing, awesome! This can help inform your conversations with people who have not.

Nuance. The biggest thing we've lost in the social media world is a sense of nuance. Posts are by and large black and white and lead to shouting rather than nuanced discussions. It bleeds into real life, too, and it's one of the reasons we have such large swings in who's leading Congress every few years: we get too caught up in rhetoric that we forget that things aren't all or nothing.

People rarely change their minds over the course of debate, but nuanced discussions can help people see the other side and to give some ground here and there, to make compromises. Let's think of some examples.

Want to know why people really voted for Trump? Stop stamping "racist" and "sexist" on their foreheads. Ask about jobs and faith. Want to know why people are really afraid under Trump? Ask, then actually listen.

Want to have an honest discussion about gun control? Talk about mental health, criminal history and multi-state licensure. And don't forget keeping firearms out of toddlers' hands.

Context. I've written about context recently. It's important because we don't live in a vacuum. Every experience we have contributes to the lens through which we see the world and colors our interactions.

History also provides context.

Empathy. While it's true that we do live in a bootstrapping, reward-the-lone-wolf-hero society, we don't even have a society without empathy. We have to care for others, understand and respect where they're coming from and fight for people who don't have a voice. It's actually one of the things that got America to the top. People came here from England to find some religious freedom and we wrote it into the Bill of Rights. When the French sent us the Statue of Liberty, we inscribed on her:

... "Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me ..."

We're not going to make it if we throw these very people back.

Culture. I had a very brief conversation with my grad school advisor about culture. She thought she didn't have any. But here's the truth: Being a member of the dominant culture doesn't mean you don't have a culture.

Here is where I, and other #NeverTrump folks, need to understand something: White working-class (primarily) Christians in middle America are concerned that their culture is in trouble. Empathy works both ways — we want people to understand that just about every Muslim in America just wants to go to school and work and worship like just about every Jew in America does and just about every Christian in America does, we also have to understand that if people in the dominant culture feel their culture is threatened, it's the same feeling every member of a minority culture feels when they're threatened.

The dominant culture isn't bad, it's just invisible as a culture because it's dominant.

Facts. It worries me that, in 2017, with America well behind the pack in STEM education across the world, we are falling even more into a post-fact society. When political and religious dogma are the basis for arguments instead of facts, we're throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Michael Shermer proposes methods for discussion when facts don't help, but it's where I just walk away. You want to know why Kobe Bryant went to Germany a few years ago to rebuild his knees? It's because under the George W. Bush administration, we decided that we shouldn't harvest stem cells and store them and do research because we were worried people would get abortions and sell stem cells from their unborn fetuses. Remember that? Meanwhile, plenty of other countries moved forward with their research, didn't see an uptick in abortions, and are way ahead of us.

Abortion arguments are another one. It turns out we don't have significantly more abortions when abortion is legal. What we do have, though, is fewer women dying from botched abortions because the procedures are safe and performed by doctors. If you're "pro-life," you should be in favor of the lives of adults, too, not just unborn children.

The scientific community isn't split on global warming, but somehow politicians are.

More than half of Republicans think Donald Trump won the popular vote. Their source? Donald Trump. His source? Donald Trump. The popular vote was 64.1 million for Clinton, 62.2 million for Trump. The source? The people who count the actual votes. That doesn't mean the electoral vote is invalid, it just means Donald Trump didn't win the popular vote. Why is that even a discussion? Because political dogma is more important than facts to some people.

If you want to see someone go off the deep end on this, listen to Joe Rogan torture paleontologist Trevor Valle with an anti-dinosaur video.

Safety. I'm not talking about so-called "safe spaces" where people go to be alone or get counseling if they feel uncomfortable because someone disagrees with them. I'm betting that happens less than we think and that we're blowing a lot of it out of proportion. I'm talking about physical safety. If you show up somewhere in a Klan hood or call someone an "oven-dodger" they're going to assume you mean to kill them. You don't need to love everybody, but you do have to live alongside them.

Civility. "Political correctness," I've come to believe, is a term used primarily when someone is too lazy — or too rude — to be civil to others. The answer is yes, you should go out of your way to be polite to people. Didn't your mother ever teach you any manners?

Trust. So if facts don't matter and people are unwilling to be civil and lots of us feel unsafe, whom do we trust? I'm actually not sure. If you're willing to cite political or religious dogma in a factual argument, or you're not willing to be polite to someone just because you're lazy, I don't know if I can trust your word.

Echo chambers. Do me a favor. Hop on over to Facebook and scroll through your feed. Of the first 15 or so status updates, how many do you disagree with? If the answer is more than zero, you're in a minority. If your answer is more than one, you're in a tiny minority. Over on Twitter, it might be slightly higher (that's because follow relationships aren't mutual), but not a lot.

If one of the great possibilities of the internet was that we'd get to hear a wide variety of viewpoints, one of our great failings as humans is that we've actively sought to shut them out. It should be the other way 'round.

Silos. Even within our echo chambers, we are in what some call silos. That is, we may have our political leanings, but other people with those same political leanings have entirely different reasons for having those leanings than we do — and they are also not in our timelines. We've actually managed to segregate ourselves not only from diverse opinions but also from those that are close parallels.

We need to bust out of these echo chambers and silos and actually get out and speak with each other. And we need to do it civilly, with empathy and having some context.

For more on how to do that, you might also want to go back and listen to my podcast with Alison Donaghy.

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3 Comments

  1. Thanks Josh; well said. I look for a day again when we can have conversations and discourse, and not just fights to defend our loosely held positions. I’ve (almost) always enjoyed talking with you even when you didn’t agreed with me, because you always bring a perspective to consider — a “what if” or “what about”, or a “consider this” backed up with research and/or or experience rather than just a “you’re wrong” or “you’re an idiot” and I thank you for those conversations and perspectives and opportunities to learn. Still we haven’t always agreed but we’ve been able to stay friends and maintain respect for each other as humans. For that, Inam grateful. Have a great day!

  2. Josh, in an FB conversation last fall, I argued for “safe spaces”, not realizing that the term means being safe from conflict. I see a safe space as being one where conflict can happen safely. Is there a term for that…or is that what we would normally call life?

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