We Are More (and Better) Than Our Differences
Can America overcome its differences?
by The Cross-Partisan Action Network | 12.12.19
We Are More (and Better) Than Our Differences
By Rob Stein | December 12, 2019
The signature feature of the dis-integration of political cohesion throughout the world is the diminishment of truth, trust, reason, and civility. As a result, the foundations of democratic ideals, institutions, and norms are eroding; cherished freedoms are being trampled; and authoritarianism is gaining strength.
In America, our bitter politics magnify our differences, fan hostilities, and stoke hatreds. Increasingly, hardened political views poison our rhetoric and reinforce our individuated sense of self, feed our blind loyalty to tribe, frame the rigidity of our belief systems, and stoke the growing sense of no longer “belonging” to one nation.
We have become seduced into a destructive fantasy of the perceived vastness and irreconcilability of our personal, tribal, and communal differences.
Our obsession with difference is constantly amplified by extreme ideologues and fanned by biased media. The worst venom these days incubates on social media: in siloed forums where extremists spew deep animosities against their political enemies, moderates within their own tribe, or despised members of the other tribe.
In this toxic climate, where our president tweets daily assaults on virtually every sensibility of decency, the Left argues that it is a “false equivalency” to equate the Right’s most sexist, racist, and xenophobic politics with the Left’s “us versus them” rhetoric.
But the fact that the most hardened advocates on the Right demonize and dehumanize difference does not justify the hardened Left’s most aggressive class-based, privilege-bashing accusations of political incorrectness and sweeping allegations of malevolent intent against those who do not share their purist progressive cultural and political sensibilities.
Political narratives founded exclusively, or even primarily, on the diminishment of - or sense of superiority over - “other” creates an inevitable, perpetually destructive, zero-sum, blame-oriented civil discourse. In this downward spiral, each side becomes calcified in its own righteous self-image and spreads the poisonous seeds of mistrust, fear, and hatred of other that inhibit good governance and are unsustainable
Fractured families are not safe and secure havens. Communities fragmented into political, cultural, and social divisions cannot thrive. Nations divided cannot stand.
Discovering our Common Humanity
Differences are a valued cultural and political reality in any Republic; and America is a rich stew of racial, class, and ideological diversity, resulting inevitably in tension and conflict.
But if we are to thrive as a civilization, we must embrace our common purpose and shared destinies, together creating a proud, new, twenty-first-century sense of nationhood.
The vast majority of us are not perpetually combative gladiators. Most of us can constructively commune with strangers and collaborate with adversaries with whom we do not share many life experiences.
Each of us assumes many roles in our rich and hectic lives – we simultaneously can be a woman, a daughter, a wife, a mother, a sister, a catholic, a business owner or nurse, a consumer, a citizen, a voter, politically conservative, and Republican. Though we possess many identities, our most basic hopes, dreams, experiences, and fears are more similar across the spectrum of race, class, and ideology than we generally imagine.
And yet, our political discourse is rarely animated by our common humanity.
When do we hear the clarion call that in spite of our differences, our commonalities form the most constructive basis for governing?
Why do we fail to concentrate on the wisdom that our groups’ special interests, or most pressing needs, sometimes are most productively addressed in the context of our shared interests and collective needs?
And, where are the powerful, persistent voices convincingly advocating that the future for each of us is inextricably tied to everyone’s destiny?
We do have deeply thoughtful leaders who speak these truths, but too frequently they are muffled by angry forces that practice an oppositional politics of difference focused on diminishing their adversaries.
Though many of us hunger, at some primal level, for common purpose, our obsessions with difference confines us in a political straitjacket.
In nature, the ability to achieve common purpose appears miraculous and mysterious:
“Why do schools of fish change direction instantly as one? Why do flocks of birds, leaderless, fly in changing patterns with more precision than a ballet company. . . [T]he collective brain is a powerful thing . . . ants (and) bees have pheromonal cloud brains—chemical instructions for everything—sex, war, foraging. . . [T]he collective brain of the ant colony is outside the body of any individual ant. It is the gaseous chemical identity of a colony that governs every ant’s behavior. So that looking at them you might think they know what they’re doing. Or why they’re doing it. Or it’s possible that the colonial brain invests each ant with an intelligence he or she might not otherwise have… and the chances of survival are improved exponentially.” —E.L. Doctorow, Andrew’s Brain
It has been theorized that human survival and thriving are consequences of our ability to cooperate. Curtis Marean, a professor at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, and Associate Director of the university’s Institute of Human Origins, poses this question: How did our human ancestors begin to “conquer the globe” about seventy thousand years ago?
“Excavations I have led at Pinnacle Point (South Africa) over the past 16 years, combined with theoretical advances in the biological and social sciences, have recently led me … to think the diaspora occurred when a new social behavior evolved in our species: a genetically encoded penchant for cooperation with unrelated individuals. The joining of this unique proclivity to our ancestors’ advanced cognitive abilities enabled them to nimbly adapt to new environments. It also fostered innovation, giving rise to a game-changing technology: advanced projectile weapons. Thus equipped, our ancestors set forth out of Africa, ready to bend the whole world to their will. The same species that leaps to the defense of a persecuted stranger will also team up with unrelated individuals to wage war on another group and show no mercy to the competition. Many of my colleagues and I think that this proclivity for collaboration—what I call hyperprosociability—is not a learned tendency but instead a genetically encoded trait found only in H. sapiens. Some other animals may show glimmers of it, but what modern humans possess is different in kind.” —Curtis W. Marean, Scientific American, “How Homo Sapiens Became the Ultimate Invasive Species,” July 14, 201
Though our mammalian core appears to be hyper-prosociable, the forces of modernity too frequently force us into a tribal crouch that blinds us to our exquisite cooperative capacities. Our economic, cultural, and political fears, mistrusts, and corrosive competitive habits are overwhelming the reality that we actually are hard-wired to grow, prosper, and mature—as a person, a nation, and a world community— to the extent that we devote our energies to constructive cooperation, and not limit the scope of human interaction to zero-sum competition.
We can choose to dwell predominately on our differences, or we can embrace our common humanity and cooperative instincts as we celebrate our rich diversity. Benjamin Franklin said it best: “we must, indeed, all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
Rob Stein is a former Senior Strategist, Democratic National Committee (1989-1992); Founder, Democracy Alliance (2005); Co-founder, Committee On States (2007); and currently committed to building an enduring cross-partisan constituency to ensure we don't hang separately.
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