Healing Our Divisions
Many people are concerned about healing the deep distrusts and animosities that today divide our country. It is as if the question so plaintively asked after 9/11 — “Why Do They Hate Us?” might now be asked about our fellow Americans. Or maybe it is, “Why Do We Hate Them?”
Some respond that talk of healing, or unity, is pre-mature, even a sell-out. Or a cover-up for real and non-negotiable differences and historic offenses. I get that. But apart from criminal behavior, as on January 6, we have to figure out some way to live with each other.
David French, Editor-in-Chief of “Dispatch,” whose work has appeared in Atlantic and New York Times, tackled one aspect of that question from his vantage point as an evangelical Christian (he’s also been a Never-Trumper).
The question he gets more than any other these days?
“A person I love is deeply committed to conspiracies. What can I do?”
We’re talking QAnon, a rigged election and the COVID hoax. According to another current report 3 out of 5 self-described evangelicals believe Biden’s election is illegitimate.
So, French asks, if your grandmother, uncle or son is hook-line-and-sinker into these conspiracy theories, what do you do? What can you do? It sounds like asking, “How do I get someone I love out of cult?,” which maybe it is.
French cites the work of Jonathan Haidt, who uses the image of the rider and the elephant for how the human mind works. The rider is our rational mind. The elephant — much bigger and more powerful — is everything else — our identity, sense of belonging, community.
“The rider ‘represents your conscious verbal reasoning—the stuff you’re aware of, the stuff that uses logic.’ The elephant is ‘everything else, the automatic processes, the 99 percent of what’s going on in your mind that you’re not aware of.’
“Haidt argues that most of us spend our time trying to persuade other people’s riders . . . we forward them articles with the ‘seven reasons why you’re wrong,’ but the real way to persuade is to speak to the elephant first. If the elephant digs in its heels, the rider can’t make it go anywhere, but when the elephant moves, the rider will follow along effortlessly.
“So how does a conspiracy theory become part of the elephant? When it’s connected to the fabric of your identity, to your community, to your friendships, and to your faith.
“. . . suppose that you forward to your Aunt Edna the absolutely perfect fact check—in 900 words, her commitment to ‘stop the steal’ crumbles into ash. Where does that leave her in her friendships? Where does that leave her in her sense of political purpose? Does it leave her disconnected from her friends in her Bible study? Does it impact her relationship with her husband? What about the online community that’s embraced her and helped her through the loneliness of the pandemic?
“All of those consequences are exactly why most of the conspiracy-committed are beyond the reach of even the most potent acts of persuasion. You’re asking the rider to fight the elephant.”
What does French recommend? Cut off is the temptation and what we often feel like doing. Don’t. Engage, but engage the elephant. “You become the person who loves them, accepts them, and helps provide that vital sense of virtuous purpose.” That’s a very tall order. Read the whole piece for more nuance. Here’s his powerful concluding paragraph.
“The longer I look at our bitter and divided culture, the more convinced I am that there are no shortcuts to cultural repair. Politics are important, but it’s relationships that will repair or destroy our land. Do we care enough about our angry relatives that we’re willing to love them back to spiritual health? The answer to that question will be more important than any media reform and any political contest. We simply cannot write off millions of Americans as beyond the reach of truth and hope.” (italics added)
French is not alone. I have quoted a lot recently from the Krista Tippett interview with Alain de Botton. Toward the end Tippett shifts from intimate relationships to civic life. She says,
“The things you’ve been saying, pointing out about how love really works — that people don’t learn when they’re humiliated; that self-righteousness is an enemy of love — I’m thinking a lot right now, these days, about how and if we could apply the intelligence we actually have with the experience of love — not the ideal, but the experience of love in our lives — to how we can be, as citizens, moving forward . . .
” . . . you’re onto something huge and rather counterintuitive, because we associate the word ‘love’ with private life. We don’t associate it with life in the republic; with civil society.
“But I think that a functioning society requires — well, it requires two things that, again, just don’t sound very normal, but they require love and politeness. And by ‘love’ I mean a capacity to enter imaginatively into the minds of people with whom you don’t immediately agree, and to look for the more charitable explanations for behavior which doesn’t appeal to you and which could seem plain wrong; not just to chuck them immediately in prison or to hold them up in front of a law court, but to —
Tippett: “Or just tell them how stupid they are, right?
de Botton:”Right. Exactly. We’re permanently — all sides are attempting to show how stupid every other side is. And the other thing, of course, is politeness, which is an attempt not necessarily to say everything: to understand that there is a role for private feelings, which, if they were to emerge, would do damage to everyone concerned.
“But we’ve got this culture of self-disclosure. And as I say, it spills out into politics as well. The same dynamic goes on of, like, ‘If I’m not telling you exactly what I think, then I may develop a twitch or an illness from not expunging my feelings.’ To which I would say, ‘No, you’re not. You’re preserving the peace and good nature of the republic, and it’s absolutely what you should be doing.’ ” A good word for lost virtues, politeness and restraint.
As a pastor I kept some words of MLK Jr. close: “Those whom we would change, we must first love.” I often failed, but I kept trying. And, now, we all have to keep trying.