It’s easier to pretend that people across the aisle are all “crazy” than to actually listen. But you could be missing out on some really meaningful conversation, says Emily Heist Moss.
It was 3am and we were still talking about abortion. The debate had become fatally circular hours before, but we were too deep and too wired to let it die a merciless death of agree-to-disagree. I was 12 and she was 13 and across the chasm between twin beds in the dead of night in the New Jersey suburbs we talked of conception and contraception, personal responsibility and personal choice. Maybe we didn’t use those words, exactly, but we both struggled to convey our nascent ideologies to a willing but unfamiliar audience.
My debate partner that night was a family friend that we visited once a year. She was home-schooled, devoutly Christian, and raised in a Republican household. I was the product of liberal Massachusetts public schools, already an annoyingly vocal atheist, the spawn of two staunch Democrats. For the duration of our stay with her family, the two of us talked into the wee hours every night, discussing our adolescent theories about pre-marital sex, abortion, gay marriage, the separation of church and state, and other light topics befitting a teenaged slumber party. Don’t worry, we also watched a lot of Dawson’s Creek.
If I’d known at the time how rare that kind of curious, respectful, compassionate aisle-crossing conversation would be, I might have held on a little longer instead of drifting into sleep.
It’s been 14 years since those sleepovers and I can count on one hand the number of similarly intense, honest conversations I’ve had with those across the aisle. And I mean “the aisle” in the broadest, most flexible sense of the word; pro-choicers and pro-lifers, marriage equality proponents and opponents, feminists and men’s rights activists, atheists and evangelicals, treehuggers and drill-baby-drillers…you get the idea. These days, the gulf between any two “sides” of an issue feels crossable only with vitriol and scorn.
It’s not that I purposefully isolate myself among the likeminded; it’s that we all isolate ourselves among the likeminded. Yes, of course, there are a few left-wingers who watch FOX to stay up on the other half of America (not just to point and laugh) and yes, there are a few right wing conservatives who may occasionally watch Maddow or pick up Mother Jones (not just to point and laugh), but they are rare among us and I am certainly not one of them.
It’s not new that America has political parties, but the trend toward polarization, toward the dismissal of the others as absurd, extreme, unreasonable, not even worth talking to, is new. In The Big Sort, Bill Bishop investigates how, over the last few decades, Americans have sorted themselves into homogenous communities:
America may be more diverse than ever coast to coast, but the places where we live are becoming increasingly crowded with people who live, think, and vote like we do. This social transformation didn’t happen by accident. We’ve built a country where we can all choose the neighborhood and church and news show—most compatible with our lifestyle and beliefs.
Although nationwide we may look evenly divided on many issues, a given community is more likely to be 90/10 than anything resembling parity. Instead of reveling in the intellectual opportunities provided by a mixed neighborhood, and maybe pulling each other toward the middle, it’s simpler to surround ourselves with people like us and pretend the other side doesn’t exist, except on those channels we never watch.
I get it, I really do. It’s safer to stay within the confines of “my people” and the lure of the Facebook like or the retweet doesn’t hurt either. The constant reinforcement of my views is intoxicating, whether appreciated by peers or shared by public figures I admire. The only versions of the opposition that make it to my newsfeed are the most extreme examples, the easiest to pick apart and mock, the Duck Dynastys of the world. The thoughtful, measured opinions of conservatives never find their way to my screen, and I don’t go looking. It’s easier to pretend that they’re all “crazy” than actually listen.
I mentioned before that I can count those aisle-crossing conversations on one hand and two of them have happened in the last few months. A few months ago, after a Christian blogger responded to this Role/Reboot essay on Twitter, we batted a few good-natured tweets back and forth. The banter felt fueled by curiosity instead of the usual quippy, combative Internet drivel. We brought our conversation to real time and recorded a Skype date to share with our respective networks. There’s a good chance her Christian friends hadn’t heard much from folks like me, and my people didn’t get many opportunities to hear from the likes of her either.
This past weekend, we went for round two. Like our first conversation, it felt like, instead of circling each other, we were spiraling the conversation toward common ground. When you read the same kind of media day in and day out, like I do, it’s easy to think that there is none to be found. But when I talk to real people—actually converse, like, back and forth, listening when I’m not talking, asking follow up questions, doing my best to explain my position and where it comes from—there is more than I would have imagined.
Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.