“Do you know about his strength in convictions? Or how she puts all her faith in religion? Did you take the time to really discover how little we know about each other?”
That’s from a song called “All My Best Friends are Metalheads” by Less Than Jake. It’s one of my favorite Less Than Jake songs, and it came on yesterday while I was running. I hadn’t heard it in awhile, and it got me thinking.
Campaign season is in full swing, and the political ads are out in force. I’m not going to bore you with who I plan to vote for, or what my political ideology is, because while what I want to say is fundamentally political, I don’t want the spirit of my argument to get unnecessarily colored by the partisan trappings of a particular candidate. What am I talking about?
In a prominent race, there are two candidates. I’ve personally met and been part of extended conversations with both of them. One I know better than the other. The one I know better has been characterized a certain way by his opponent and the campaigners opposing him. Their characterizations, while probably technically true from a raw voting scorecard perspective, are not indicative of the person I feel comfortable asserting is the politician I’ve spent the most personal time with.
It is in watching these characterizations that I’ve become disheartened further at the political process. And I’m not necessarily disheartened by how likely difficult this process is personally for the candidate and his family as they watch his face appear on television again and again villainized, ridiculed, and denigrated, although they certainly have my sympathy. But he, and they, knew the score when he ran for public office, and thus, understood the public flogging is just part of the bargain of civil service.
What’s disheartening is that I understand in a new way how insidious political ads truly are. Watching a campaign opponent set a narrative about someone I know that I feel is remarkably unfair – or at best, incomplete – and then watching the public buy, adopt, and propagate this narrative is utterly demoralizing because I know I’ve done this myself. Everyone talks about how much they hate political ads, but there wouldn’t be so goddamn many of them if they weren’t so effective. And seeing this process unfold in a brand new, and much more pointed, way has only reinforced their effectiveness to me.
If I had to distill my political beliefs down into a neat essay, I’d just copy and paste this. It’s a response written by Andrew W.K. in his Village Voice advice column to a reader who’s written a letter describing how his dad is a right-wing asshole. If you’re not keen to read the whole thing (although you should), and if linking to an essay isn’t sufficient for summarizing my political beliefs, here’s the most pertinent paragraph:
“The world isn’t being destroyed by democrats or republicans, red or blue, liberal or conservative, religious or atheist — the world is being destroyed by one side believing the other side is destroying the world. The world is being hurt and damaged by one group of people believing they’re truly better people than the others who think differently. The world officially ends when we let our beliefs conquer love. We must not let this happen.”
The world is being destroyed by one side believing the other side is destroying the world.
It’s okay to disagree with people, disagree with their worldview, and disagree with their beliefs about what the right path toward prosperity is. Fuck, that’s democracy. That’s healthy, and that’s good. Solutions come only from an honest airing of grievances, ideas, innovation, and revision. That’s called progress, and it’s messy and tough and emotionally taxing.
But it’s only possible if we don’t completely write off the other side. I lived through eight years of people calling George W. Bush a lying, illiterate war criminal hellbent on sending us toward nuclear Armageddon. I am currently living through eight years of people calling Barack Obama an Islamist socialist terrorist hellbent on ending America as we know it. I believe neither of those things to be true, and those assertions only underline Andrew W.K.’s point.
If reading those things about either of those Presidents made you say, “How could anyone think that about him? He’s a good man!” then just consider for five minutes the person who feels that way about the other guy. You don’t have to agree with them, or even necessarily sympathize, but I suspect (and hope) it will give you pause the next time you consider immediately demonizing them or their viewpoint.
In an increasingly polarized Congress, a media culture that rewards arguing and opposing viewpoints, and a prevailing belief that we must be at odds over everything, I believe our only hope is to learn to feel and express more empathy for each other. Only by learning more about those with whom we disagree will we be able to evolve this culture of divide. I choose not to demonize those opposite me, which I recognize is a choice.
My only message for the 2014 election is that you do the same. Learn about his strength in convictions or how she puts all her faith in religion. Dig in. Learn more. Demystify. And then vote however you want. But please don’t let us erode our humanity. Here’s Andrew W.K. again:
“We must make endless efforts to try and understand the people we least relate to. And we must at all times force ourselves to love the people we dislike the most. Not because it’s nice or because they deserve it, but because our own sanity and survival depends on it.”
It’s this or continued fracture, divide, and acrimony. I’m making an effort toward understanding.