On Tolerating the Intolerant and Other Paradoxes of a Living in a Democracy

Last night I attended my first congressional town hall meeting. My local representative, House Republican Rod Blum, graciously took the time to meet with a crowd of about one thousand at a local high school. A lottery system was used to allow participants to ask questions. Topics included health care, climate change, tax reform, immigration, education, and military spending. As you might imagine, the anger in the room quickly became palpable. Most of the people present (myself included) were opponents of the current Republican agenda, at least on some issues. However, as much as I opposed the content of much of Blum’s message, I genuinely wanted to hear what he had to say. And it was hard to hear his words amid the din of “boos” and other shouts from the audience throughout the event.

For a while now I have been asking the question of why political issues cause such anger and division among people. After all, eight years ago it was the folks on the right who were angrily storming town hall meetings – a rage that gave rise to the Tea Party movement, the slew of Republican victories during the 2014 midterm elections, and ultimately, the landing of Donald Trump in the White House. Now, many on the left are attempting to mimic this tactic, building a movement with the hope of Democratic takeover of Congress in 2018 and the presidency in 2020.

However, there is a problem. What will happen if the Democrats win? To hear some of my friends and colleagues say it, there is hope that society will be put right: that the Environmental Protection Agency will be funded and do its job correctly, that human-caused climate change denial will disappear, that migrants will be welcomed and xenophobia will be put in check. Unfortunately, this will not be the case. Climate change deniers and xenophobes will continue to speak loudly and push for their agenda – just as, under a supposedly anti-abortion government, pro-abortion-rights activists continue to push their agenda

The reason why politics is often such a volatile subject for so many is because it touches on core beliefs and values. Unfortunately, one of the challenges of living in a democracy is that we have to live and work beside people with drastically different worldviews than their own. Young-earth creationists must live beside materialist atheists, and vice versa. LGBTQ people must live beside the homophobic. People who believe the environment is in grave danger of destruction must live beside other people who believe it is not.

In a recent NPR commentary, Jennifer McCoy, a political scientist who studies highly polarized democracies like Turkey, Venezuela and Hungary, comments that in a society where people are divided into two ideological camps, the worst thing we can do is to shield ourselves from those who think differently from ourselves. This only increases polarization – and this, according to McCoy, leads to one of three outcomes: paralyzing gridlock where no compromise can be reached, a veering back and forth between the two camps where the one in power imposes its decisions on the other side, only to have those reversed when the other side gains power (this is what we in the US see happening now) and finally, a growing authoritarian trend (which is what is occurring in the countries McCoy studies).

What is the solution? For McCoy, a major part of the problem is our tendency to lock ourselves inside echo chambers and only listen to those who share our worldview, indulging ourselves in confirmation bias and refusing to listen to those voices that might change our minds. “We’ve got to find ways to bring people together and tap into their shared humanity. That is, to give them experiences where they can begin to empathize again with the other person.”

This is not an easy task. There was a time when, it seems, we were forced to confront opposing views. This was a time of greater collective unity, of entire families across the US sitting down to watch the national news on one of three networks at 6:30 p.m., of generally reading the same publications. Today, in an era where more and more people consume news specifically tailored to their worldview, it is much easier to isolate ourselves among the like-minded.

As I have written before, it can be hard to talk with my own family members about political issues. However, the conversation became a little more fruitful when we shifted to a discussion of values. “What does it mean to be a good person?” I asked my father. Without hesitation, my father replied, “To be self-sufficient…To be able to take care of yourself without burdening others for support.”

Admittedly, this value is pretty far from my own view of goodness. Indeed, I barely value self-sufficiency at all, preferring a social model where I know I can both provide and receive help from others. As far as I know, Jesus never said, “Blessed are the independent.” I don’t really relate to an ethic that suggests people have an obligation to themselves and immediate families but not to others beyond that circle – perhaps because other than my aging parents, I really don’t have a nuclear family, and I don’t assume that the most vulnerable people in our society do either. Meanwhile, to those who attest that the “rugged individualism” of explorers and frontiersmen made our country strong, I lamentingly point out that this individualism depended upon the genocide of native peoples as well as the brutality of slave labor. As John Donne famously said, “No man is an island.” I’d like to be able to depend on a family but can’t. I’d like to depend on (and contribute to) civil society, but this, like family, is not always reliable. Unfortunately, some degree of governmental safety net seems necessary.

However, while I hold tightly to this value and others, I recognize that many of my compatriots – probably about half – hold just as tightly to my father’s value of self-sufficiency as a virtue. I have to accept this. In the same way, they have to accept that I don’t. And as hard as it may be, this is the case for absolutely every value that any of us hold. If we are going to make any progress at all on our most difficult problems, we need to recognize our differences, respect the differences of the other – even when they offend us – and strive together to determine what is best.

About Jeannine Pitas