Divergent lanes in traffic keep us moving safely. Separate lanes in politics help us clarify our distinctive views. However, with our growing polarization, the pattern of driving in our own lanes only has emerged. 

The phrase “stay in your lane,” can mean different things. It might refer cynically to how we talk politics only with people who think like us. Or those in a particular group with a grievance might use it when admonishing others to “stay in their own lanes” because the others could never possibly grasp what it is like to be in the aggrieved party’s shoes. 

But because of our common interests, our speech inevitably spills into each other’s lanes. We can’t argue about how to improve public schools or clean up contaminated properties without recommending what we, and others, must do differently. We can’t debate the threats to public safety without naming the practices or problems of others as relevant to the problem.

Conflicts take place partly because of the deeper pull of our commonalities. We have to engage one another. Take one’s place of residence: We define a neighborhood proudly as “ours.” But the reality of being of one city confronts us when we look beyond our neighborhood’s fences.

In our lanes, we talk about others but not with them. We do so framed by the assumptions, biases, and languages that cement our differences. This is how we create unchallenged, one-way thoroughfares that give rise to our reassuring “bubbles.” In Oak Park’s liberal bubble, it’s easy to criticize conservative positions without actually having to debate conservatives directly. The reverse no doubt holds true in a place like Wheaton. In the white, working-class bubble in which I lived as a boy, it was common to hear racist comments about African Americans go unchallenged, as if the sentiments were etched into the pavement that only whites walked. 

There is a deceptive self-assuredness that comes with remaining in our bubbles and staying in our lanes. But that comfort comes at a price: If we never venture out of them, we close off any chance of agreeing with one another. Lanes arise inevitably with freedom, but denying our shared ground neglects, and allows the deterioration of, the floor beneath those liberties. Denying our oneness, we can shout about, or at, others from our walled-in spaces. We forget how to debate others civilly, clarify mutually what we disagree about, and take the next step of constructing consensus.

The people in the other lanes might not “get” us the way we want them to. They don’t trust that we “get” them either. But we would better understand why if we acknowledged the beliefs, values, and democratic institutions that we hold in common. The first step to embracing those shared treasures is to stop denying that they are there.

Rich Kordesh is a longtime resident of Oak Park who grew up in Berwyn.

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