You may have heard words like “Conservative”, “Liberal”, and “Trump-Supporter” being thrown around like insults; it’s not uncommon in a world where depending on your company each term is seen as inherently good or inherently bad. In many ways, our political system is driven by the rift between the two major parties. Often, because we see the opposing party as inherently bad, we discuss political ideas with only people who agree with us, but this may mean we’re condemning ourselves to a dangerous future.
Viewpoint diversity is the existence of several differing viewpoints within a community. The danger begins when people stop encountering other viewpoints; instead they see only bias confirmation, evidence that their viewpoints are the “correct” beliefs. These people tend to be less accepting and able to compromise than those who are faced with multiple sides.
Samuel Abrams, professor at Sarah Lawrence College, and author of several books about political interactions, explains that by only watching one news source, you’re only exposing yourself to one perspective on each issue. When you’re finally faced with an opposing perspective you, “tend to reject those alternative positions, because they just don’t fit with your worldview.”
When people dismiss alternative viewpoints as incomprehensible, or just wrong, “people can’t communicate, people can’t relate, and people sort themselves.” The categories may seem harmless; Democrat or Republican? Liberal or Conservative? But over time we’ve grown to stand as two divided parties, rather than one country.
Andrew Smith, Political Science Professor at UNH, used a metaphor to better explain the divide, “when you have an argument between two people who like the Red Sox and the Yankees and the core of their argument is ‘Yankees suck’ or ‘Red Sox suck’ it doesn’t really provide a lot of intellectual enlightenment[…] That’s kind of what we have in politics today.”
This is a concept referred to as tribalism and in many ways it dictates how we hold political conversation, as a discussion or a fight. Smith stated, “Why I’m right and you’re wrong gets down to the basis of human nature.” But unless we’re informed on all sides of an issue, our discussions won’t progress beyond basic accusations.
Abrams explained the chasm between the parties as a function of our past and current presidents. “Obama pushed a fair number of people away, and that led to a lot of anger, a lot of sense of disenfranchisement, and that then lead to crazy[…]things happening on the right. So for better or for worse, we’re in a very discordant moment of political history.”
Abrams thought that our presidents have been non-inclusive to viewpoints, they held extreme viewpoints and it rallied people to them, but it also drove the country apart. They ran as the leader for their party, not for the country. People who felt unrepresented by Obama may have felt like Trump could be the antidote they were looking for. Although the President is meant to represent all Americans, if the parties stand divided there won’t be a president to represent both of them, just one.
Abrams pointed out that as long as the presidency represented one side at a time, it would continue to alternate between the parties. He explained that a lot of people were frustrated with the Obama administration, and, “now we see the flip side, where we have a very un-inclusive president as well, back and forth, and back and forth.”
Abrams expressed that it’s crucial to have an unbiased education to help foster understanding. “It’s so important that your generation understand that lots of people can have different ideas[…]many of them can be valid, and that in a democratic society we argue, we fight, we discuss, we vote, we move on, we do it again.”
Smith expressed that a combination of media and poor education regarding American government has led to this divide in understanding. “We don’t teach civics, we don’t teach politics[…]What I find as a professor is that our students are woefully ignorant of the US Constitution, they’re woefully ignorant of the basis of how people are elected, of how policy is made, and that makes them prey[…]to the silly arguments that they can hear on television.”
With the dangerous implications of a biased education suggested by Abrams, and Smith’s experience with students remaining ignorant of civics into college; it’s hard to look to the future with optimism.
However, Oyster River High School social studies teacher, David Hawley, explained that Oyster River is better off than some schools, stating that other schools he worked at, “were really resistant to alternate viewpoints,” whereas here, “we’re allowed a fair amount of freedom to provide diversity in opinions.”
Some teachers at Oyster River, including Hawley, provide Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as a historical narrative to balance the traditional patriotic views provided by the textbook. Zinn’s book provides insight into the plight of the people who suffered in the aftermath of decisions made by our textbook heros. By offering both Zinn’s perspective and the textbook narrative, you gain a more complete understanding of history and a more complete education.
Hawley expressed that for students to receive the best education, “we need to offer them a menu of ideas.” However, he’s found this to be difficult because, “in our modern society, people are so polarized that if their idea’s not represented all the time they view it as a bias.”
When looking at current issues, you have to practice the same strategies when looking at historical issues. Abrams fears that if we shut people off college campuses, “because they may think the person has something evil to say, or something that they don’t agree with, or something that’s just wrong, that’s going to lead to[…]these groups becoming more sorted, and the biases, when we need to keep open minds.”
Hawley also explained that there is always going to be a certain amount of perceived bias because of history’s political nature. “People in social studies are always going to be extremely sensitive, because it’s ideas about how people understand their history and that’s inherently political.”
Hawley also explained that today, “[Americans] have this worldview that criticism is a left thing and traditional values is a right thing. There’s a certain amount of truth to that, but[…]there’s an equal amount of criticism[…]It’s a shame because it further creates tribalism and a divide, and folks are super passionate about it.”
The parties have drawn apart from each other and left a chasm of misunderstanding and ignorance between them. The most important thing that the average person can do is to listen. Don’t just look at the ideas that stand out on social media, or the insults hurled at the other side. Listen to their ideas to understand and discuss, not to argue. If you listen to understand, you may see that more gray area exists than you realized, or that the most “liked” ideas have holes in them. It’s up to you; do you ignore, or do you listen? Do you fight, or do you discuss?