Confronting a culture of confrontation
Whenever I sit down to write an Opinion piece for the Echo, I first take time to peruse the front page of the New York Times website. While I am usually able to come up with a solid prompt for an op-ed on my own, setting aside just five minutes online to take in the various issues and problems plaguing our world gives me a true idea overload. We inhabit a miserable, cruel planet that is populated by human beings that do terrible things to other human beings. In that context, finding depressing topics to riff on for 800 words is a pretty straightforward exercise.
At the heart of most—maybe all—societal issues are human-human interactions, and the attitudes and consequences that characterize these interactions. I wish that I could use this space to deliver an authoritative manual for interacting with other human beings, but I don’t have any good suggestions. But I can say that I am deeply troubled by this present culture of confrontation that too often typifies how we as people choose to deal with others who possess different views from us.
It is a mindset that frequently inhibits compromise and progress, and it usually simply serves to calcify preconceived notions about a perceived opposition. As individuals and as a society, we are always either on the offensive or the defensive, with no grey area in between. Partisan politics are probably the most glaring example.
I was first motivated to write on the issue of confrontationalism after reading a paraphrased quote from Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who recently announced that he would not seek re-election in 2012. Frank, a staunch lion of the left for the past 30 years, has contributed to more than his fair share of partisan discord during his decorated congressional career, but he aptly articulated on Monday the cold reality that we are facing nationally: the idealized notion that rigorous debate between different parties is “a competition between people of good will with different views on public policy” has all but disappeared. As a society, we no longer shake hands after sparring.
The first death knells of that American political notion were probably witnessed in 1804, when Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton. But even since then, there have always been great examples throughout American history of mutual respect among the men and women who represent us, for the purpose of serving the common good.
These days, opposing politicians vilify each other and view any form of concession as defeat. If Speaker of the House John Boehner somehow managed to earn the nickname, “The Great Compromiser,” he would take the title as an insult. The present field for the Republican presidential nomination has quite a few candidates who have moderate records, but they are all trying to distance themselves from said records. In general, it would appear that Democrats and Republicans are locked in some kind of existential struggle; they are blind to the fact that the existences in the balance are 300 million Americans.
While this culture of confrontation is pervasive, it by no means defines most interactions in our daily lives. We all find space for moderation and accommodating others, skills that we learned in preschool and have honed since then. A solid example would be the Civil Discourse. Sure, a few people do post aggressive viewpoints and refuse to back off from them, but there are occasionally salient, evolving exchanges where people comfortably engage with different perspectives and learn something. Instead of “debate,” the words that come to mind are often “conversation” or “dialogue.” We are all moderates to some degree in personal life. Co-existing with other people necessitates that level of understanding.
Yet somewhere along the way, as personal issues are amplified to political and social issues, viewpoints begin to polarize and the center all but evaporates. There seems to be an immense societal pressure to pick sides and define oneself by the opposition. It is difficult to offer up any remedies to this problem, but the least that we can all do is recognize it and let it inform our voting decisions and how we keep our political leaders accountable.
There is a beautiful periodicity to American history. In the same way that a pendulum swings back and forth, our history is a never-ending series of actions and reactions. It is difficult to be optimistic in these political times, but if we react accordingly to this cancer of partisanship, we may just prove Barney Frank wrong.