Plague in the 21st Century

di·vi·sive adjective \də-ˈvī-siv also -ˈvi- or -ziv\
: causing a lot of disagreement between people and causing them to separate into different groups

No, it’s not the Word of the Day from dictionary.com (that was galoot, a word that is, frankly, just fun to say).

Divisive is the name of the plague that is destroying our country. The symptoms are easy to see, everywhere: complacency, blame, intractability, narcissism. How long do we think we can steer a ship the size of our country with all hands pulling the sails in different directions?

In the last year, I was invited to join a politically-focused group on Facebook. It was the first time I’d allowed myself to be drawn into political discussions in a social medium because I knew how many divisive subjects there are within the framework of my friends list. Participating in discussions with people I didn’t know meant a whole new level of vulnerability. I agreed only because this group is dedicated to civility. It frequently misses the mark, but it’s closer than many. Nearly a year later, I’m profoundly glad I did. Not only have I learned an amazing volume of information, I’ve been exposed to some truly exceptional minds. And as an added bonus, the man who invited me is now one of my dearest friends, as are other members of the group, as well.

Let me repeat that, because it’s significant. The man who invited me is now one of my dearest friends, as are other members of the group, as well. 

While the membership in the particular group is diverse, and sometimes polarized, I noticed something interesting after a discussion with a man whose views are different than mine. In the comments, he’d written something that I’d found arrogant. Normally, I’d have responded by shredding his opinion, using my own as the weapon. But instinct prevailed and I sent him a private message instead, resolved to quell my own reactionary and insular conclusions; I wanted to know his motives better. A year later, I still consider it one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, for he too is now a dear friend. Moreover, it taught me that really listening to others taught me more than I realized as a younger, inexperienced woman.

You see, people generally want the same things, despite the canyon that may separate their understanding of how to get it. If you poll any mother or father, unless they suffer a significant mental deficit, they will tell you that they want their children to be happy and healthy. If you ask any young, newly graduated college student (and the same caveat applies), they’ll regurgitate the same idealistic wish for world peace. These are rites of passage for both groups. However, there is an immeasurable number of paths to achieve those ideals and just as immeasurable is the number of definitions of what those things mean.

Beware the man who needs something bigger than himself as a compass. The disease lies in the extremes.

While researching this piece, I ran across an excerpt from “Extreme Fear” entitled “The Grandeur of Delusions”.[1]  In it, Wise writes:

“As we go about our lives, we form all sorts of beliefs and opinions about the world, which psychologists divide into two types. The first kind, “instrumental” beliefs, are ideas that can directly help us accomplish our goals. I believe that a chain saw can cut down a tree; I believe that the price of a first-class postage stamp is 44 cents. These kinds of beliefs tend to be directly testable: if I rely on them and they fail, I’ll have to revise my understanding.

The other kind of belief, the “philosophical” kind, are not so easily tested. These are ideas that we hold these beliefs not because they are demonstrably true, but because of the emotional benefits of holding them. When I say that I live in the greatest country on earth, or that true love lasts forever, I can’t really offer any evidence supporting these ideas, and that’s okay. They’re worth believing because they fulfill my emotional needs.”

In any discussion, with any other individual, both parties have to understand that the other’s experiences and belief systems are the core of their opinions. One cannot be separated from his or her core. However, considering that the brain behaves more like a muscle than most realize, it is possible to expand the core and with it, one’s world view.

However obvious this concept seems to be, one only need read innumerable, witless statements by a palette of congresspersons, pundits, clerics and world leaders to see how delusional world views can be. Not all, but many. Very many. Shake my head daily many.

Wise also writes:

“What kind of emotion tends to lead us astray? Well, one of the most powerful is the need to feel in control. Countless psychological experiments have shown that for both humans and animals, helplessness in the face of danger is intensely stressful.”

And therein lies the secret. If one’s experience is that he or she grew up among a diverse population, where everyone was allowed to flourish, where no one could oppress another person with beliefs, then all would have the opportunity to flourish. But that requires that no one wants to project his or her core beliefs/fears on another. Such application of control from one person to another begins at the moment of conception. A pregnant mother elects to eat a certain way, for example, in order to ‘control’ the health of her baby, for good reasons. However, this extends outside the womb from the first breath: vegetarianism, christianity, liberalism, and any number of philosophical positions in between. Even normal, healthy adults feel right because of what they believe, rather than evidence in support of or contrary to their personal argument. That will never change. But prejudice is just as easily projected on the others. It is learned. It is the first component of divisiveness.

Some people are so entrenched in their fears that they cannot possibly assimilate ideas that fall even slightly outside their belief systems. And this is where the disease of divisiveness harms us the most. The foundation of this country was once freedom from a system that limited the individual’s right to choose, yet the trend is toward creating a regime based on a mob mentality. We are imprisoned by a movement toward the homogenous and slowly, we’re being convinced that we cannot possibly function without our corpulent government. We are becoming the Borg.

Meanwhile, the great ship is coming apart pin by pin. If we cannot return, as citizens, to facing the same direction, to realizing that protecting our individual rights is paramount, then we will surely follow Rome, Hattusa, Alexandria and countless others throughout history. We cannot continue to be polarized in our views on how to achieve a balance between social needs and individual freedoms. It is the personal responsibility of every citizen to recognize the struggles we have undertaken as a nation to ensure that we can walk down any street, in the middle of any day, and do what we want (as long as we do no harm). Living in this country is not a right, it is a privilege. While nowhere in our constitution is there a guarantee, the US is among the few countries that allow people to pursue life, liberty and happiness without oppression. How ‘bout we keep it that way?

[1]  “Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger” by Jeff Wise, published on PsychologyToday.com
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/extreme-fear/201303/the-grandeur-delusion

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