Despite our present divisions, we are deeply connected by our human experience. The solution to our polarization is in the basic fabric of our existence. We felt it as a country on 9/11, and as a world when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. We are not the monsters our ideological opponents perceive, but neither are they the fools we suspect.
When we hold ideas so dear that they inspire hatred, those ideas are the enemy. However, as Matthew preached, we must remove the beam from our own eye before we can see clearly to remove the speck from another’s.
Specifically, each of us must recognize that facts are facts; they include events, people, places, and times — the who, what, when and where. The “why,” however, is a conclusion, an interpretation, a narrative. It is an analysis arising from facts. It must be left open for debate because facts are facts, but narratives are not facts. In a democracy, compromise, statesmanship, and progress evaporate when we confuse them.
The media is partly to blame, having abandoned its critical role of informing our democracy, instead it has become entertainment. Its new purpose is to capture our attention to sell advertising. Cable “news” combines minutes of fact with hours of spin to support a narrative. Print and digital media conflate fact and opinion, selling stories instead of information. Electronic partisan rags spawn colonies of divisive voices cheered on by commenters without accountability. Talk radio spews caustic opinions over airwaves or streams them as podcasts. Hearing our narratives validated keeps our attention, making content more valuable to advertisers at the expense of balance and the truth.
Special interests seize upon our division to advance their agendas, selectively focusing on facts and generating “motivated arguments.” Unions develop talking points for teachers, police, and pensioners seeking victory for leaders, portrayed as justice for workers. University professors rally students, pandering for relevance portrayed as social justice. The NRA, ACLU, AARP, BLM, MAGA, and other single-interest acronyms deliver dogma to politicians and media outlets. Corporations issue press releases rationalizing layoffs, pollution, and profiteering to protect and advance quarterly share prices. All see opportunity in division, neglecting long-term consequences.
In response, political parties focus on converting polarization to power rather than leading. The ends are thought to justify the means, but they don’t. They spin narratives as fact to influence voters: wear masks or be free; kids in class or protect teachers; protest racism or condemn looting; kill babies or control women; a right to bear arms or stop school shootings. Leaders announce a party line and members adopt it. Opponents react, substituting strategy for study. Agendas develop that benefit only some. Elder statesmen seek common ground, but one party uses polarization to energize its base and the other must follow suit or devolve into irrelevance.
More recently, social media platforms have begun to monetize our divisions. Artificial intelligence accelerates our antagonism with algorithms that keep our attention by feeding us posts that fit our narrative, increasing screen time and dividing us into demographics. This creates an illusory world where almost everyone agrees with us.
Emboldened in our information bubbles by apparently overwhelming support, we announce our narratives in posts and reposts, tweets and retweets. Those few in our cyber world who disagree appear ignorant and divisive. Feeling heroic, we call opponents out as foolish, weak, blind, and amoral — even longtime trusted friends and family.
We convince no one who doesn’t already agree, but our opponents become increasingly convinced that we are the ignorant, weak, delusional, and amoral. We stop listening, waiting for our turn to talk. Eventually we unfriend friends, stop seeing them socially, and transport our delusion to the real world, reinforcing our isolation.
Our isolation makes us increasingly vulnerable to manipulation, creating a vicious cycle that spirals us toward chaos. Enemies of democracy see us divided and invent facts to support our narratives, purposefully accelerating our division. Lies spread six times faster than truth because they are dramatic and enthusiastically support what we already believe. We repost and retweet them without critical thought or analysis. Discernment long surrendered, we accept this disinformation as we did the earlier misinformation. The alternative is to admit that we have been blind at the top of our lungs.
Now a pandemic has hit, right when we feel most hopelessly divided. But hope springs eternal. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we have always had the power to click our heels and return to reality. We all simply need to stop substituting narrative for fact to realize that those around us are not our enemies, but our beloved brothers and sisters.
John Phelan, a River Forest resident, is a former member of the District 200 Board of Education.