Embrace the middle
Some days it seems Americans are more divided than ever, with no hope of coming together as a united nation on any topic. I think we are underselling ourselves, and I also think there are at least three things we can all incorporate into our day-to-day interactions to make things better.
Give voice to your moderate views, and exercise restraint on the rest
The protests and unrest following George Floyd’s death created a bit of a dilemma for many of us. Black Lives Matter (and many other groups and individuals before them) have documented and pointed out policing practices that unfairly target minorities, particularly African-Americans. I’ve worked in the criminal justice field, I’ve read the research, and looked at cases and trust me, there’s a problem. Increased scrutiny of policing has also, I’ve been seeing, unearthing a lot of police practices that seem to be excessive against a lot of other people too, not just “bad apple cop” sort of stuff, but systemic, trained responses to situations that from the outside seem to need some review.
That being said, I also have personally known a number of law enforcement officers, including family members, who are hardworking, amazingly dedicated, kind and compassionate people. They put their lives on the line every day to protect citizens because that is what they are called to do. I’ve also seen how the stress of policing, overly long working hours, insufficient training, and insufficient mental health support, contributes to problems for police and policing. These are also systemic problems that need to be addressed.
But now we are faced with the awkward situation of protesters legitimately complaining about policing practices, but also expecting those police who may feel unfairly targeted to remain calm and reserved and maintain the peace. That already creates a powder keg. Then you add in a mix of counterprotesters (some of whom think concurrently exercising their 2nd Amendment rights is a good idea) and opportunists who engage in criminal activity under the cover of protests, and its truly remarkable there haven’t been more injuries and deaths than there have been in the past few months.
Here’s the thing. Everybody is right (except for the criminals), at least to some extent. Black lives do matter, blue lives do matter, all lives do matter, but that doesn’t look so good on a protest sign. Being a moderate doesn’t sell, it doesn’t lead to catchy slogans or chants, and it doesn’t compel people to march in the streets.
Now here is where we need to stop, take a breath, and purposely move to the middle. Instead of picking a side, you can say, not just to yourself, but to your friends and on your social media platforms, “I support police, but not the ones who break the law. I support protesters, but not the ones who break the law.” I mean isn’t that what the vast majority of us believe anyway? Don’t pick an extreme side. Pick the middle.
The middle has strength in numbers, but we keep allowing the extremists screaming at the top of their lungs (or squeezing the life out of presumed innocent suspects) to frame our beliefs and our comments. “Us” versus “them.” It’s a dynamic we have become all too comfortable with.
There is nothing wrong in saying “we really need to do a fresh evaluation of how policing works in our communities and make it better for citizens and police alike.” The extreme arguments of “defund the police” or “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” rile us up and make controversial headlines, but really aren’t helpful in the big scheme of things. It’s okay to temporarily feel the upset or resonance of such positions, but then take a few deep breaths, step back, and say “let’s plot a course for somewhere between those extremes” preferably before you hit “Like” or “Share.”
Beware your own hypocrisy, and be patient with everyone else’s
Hypocrisy is alive and well in our society and if we are honest with ourselves we’ll admit we hate it in others, but forgive it in ourselves. This isn’t so much an intentional choice as a scientific fact.
There is some interesting scientific research on how are brain works with respect to conflicting information about “us” versus “them.” In Drew Weston’s book “The Political Brain, The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of a Nation,” the author describes research he and colleagues conducted in the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election. The findings are extraordinary and insightful. They did tests to see how the brain processed information that conflicted with what people wanted to believe. They presented political partisans with one statement by their candidate followed by a second, contradictory statement from the same candidate. The same was done with statements by the opposing candidate. When asked whether they considered the statements to be contradictory, they eagerly scored a 4 out of 4 points for inconsistency for the opponent, but only 2 out of 4, or minimal inconsistency, for their own candidate.
Let that sink in a bit. Think about all of the times you have tried to convince people on social media that their political party compatriots were hypocrites on an issue. “But [someone else] did the same thing and I didn’t hear you complaining then” is a classic minimizing, excusing response.
But here is where it gets worse. In that same study, they found that not only were contradictions minimized, but the brain worked overtime to go further and deny inconsistencies with their own candidate.
When confronted with potentially troubling political information, a network of neurons becomes active that produces distress. . . .
The brain registers the conflict between data and desire and begins to search for ways to turn off the spigot of unpleasant emotion. . . .
Not only did the brain manage to shut down distress through faulty reasoning, but it did so quickly … The neural circuits charged with regulation of emotional states seems to recruit beliefs that eliminated the distress and conflict partisans had experienced when they confronted unpleasant realities. … Once the partisans had found a way to reason to false conclusions, not only did neural circuits involved in negative emotions turn off, but circuits involved in positive emotions turned on. The partisan brain didn’t seem satisfied with just feeling better. It worked overtime to feel good, activating reward circuits that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased reasoning. These reward circuits overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their “fix,” giving new meaning to the term political junkie.”
Sound familiar? In yourself and in those you talk to? The oft-used phrase “doubling down” on a position is this very dynamic. If someone says something inflammatory, then gets called on its hypocrisy (or stupidity) tends to solidify the original position even further.
Now that we know that our brains have a remarkable ability to seek justification for the sometimes admittedly stupid things we think or say, perhaps we can be grown ups and retrain our thinking. Acknowledge the problem, then take a step back, rethink your own double standards, and try to change them. As to everyone else, just understand that pointing out their hypocrisy usually just makes things worse. Silence, in many situations, is golden.
Hold our elected representatives to a higher standard
Power corrupts. That is not a new story, it’s just part of the human experience. But we have had elected representatives over the centuries of our nation’s history who have been public servants of the highest caliber. We have had elected representatives who couldn’t be bribed, who wouldn’t break the law, who humbly provided service to their country. Is it naïve of me to think, to hope, to work towards having more of those?
Let’s stop giving our politicians excuses for bad behavior, for criminal conduct, for failure to put the best interests of their constituents above their financial gain, above their personal ambitions. What are unacceptable histories, actions, and conduct unacceptable for public servants? Write that list down and keep it handy for evaluating the conduct of all of our elected representative, whether from your party or another party. Let it be known that we are looking for the best and the brightest to lead our country, our states, and our local communities. Let it be known that there will be no tolerance for criminal conduct, for bribery, for making decisions on public matters to provide for personal profit. Let it be known that elections are like job interviews, and if you cannot demonstrate your competence and underlying education and experience, you are not entitled to votes.
Democracy is not for wimps. We will never all agree on anything — that is the blessing and the curse of freedom — so we need to learn to live with that discomfort. If we want our democracy to continue to survive, we need to take the steps necessary to make it thrive, not by embracing the fringe positions (constitutionally permissible though they may be), but by focusing on the moderate ones.
It’s time for Americans to embrace the middle — fervently, aggressively, and passionately. It could make all the difference.