America feels deeply divided on, well, everything. At least it seems that way. You know when we cannot agree on what constitutes a “wall” that we are all migrating toward our own safe space of ideas, while venturing out only to attack the opposition or defend our position.
This tribalism is counterproductive to not only democracy, but also our ability to coexist with one another. If we think the other side is out to destroy us, how can we get along?
The organization More in Common produced one of the largest studies ever on polarization. The researchers interviewed over 8,000 Americans to better understand what is causing these societal splits, the effects of the divide and how we might bridge them.
One of the key conclusions is that “tribal outrage works as a business model for social media, cable television and talk radio.” Controversy is good for business, but while the bottom line may be benefiting, the country is not. The report finds that this tribal outrage “is metastasizing from national politics and on-line forums to campuses, workplaces and the dinner table at Thanksgiving.”
Clearly, Americans are wildly divided on issues, and it is those issues that dominate the conversation. However, the study went beyond issues, digging down into values and core beliefs. What they found was revealing; “Where they expected to find only difference and disagreement, they often found much common ground.”
We all have reasons to disagree. However, the researchers found that when given the opportunity to hear about other people’s experiences and beliefs, a sense of empathy began to emerge.
“Differences in core beliefs do not disappear, but these differences, which are constantly magnified on our screens, are placed into an entirely different perspective by person-to-person contact,” they determined.
But absent that empathy, we are relegated to going through our lives with “absurdly inaccurate perceptions of each other. Partisan media consistently elevates the most extreme representations of ‘them.’”
The researchers conclude that the middle is far larger than conventional wisdom suggests, and that the “strident wings of progressivism and conservatism are far smaller.” In short, we have more in common than we think.
How do we overcome this tribalism? The report suggests that politicians speak more to values that unite us as a nation, that media tell more stories of how communities build bridges instead of walls, that technology companies create platforms that bring disparate people together rather than herd them into echo chambers.
I have my own suggestion. Trying talking with more people who have views different from your own and find out why they feel the way they do? Or, instead of focusing on the differences with another person, try to find some shared values.
This feels like a critical time in our country where the very fabric is wearing thin because of the tribal polarization. However, as the researchers added, “vision and idealism have long played roles in America’s national story.”
We are as good as we choose to be.