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Living With Difference in Troubling Times

Which side are you on?

Key points

  • In a polarized society, pressure to conform to our own group's way of thinking and speaking grows greater.
  • Accepting our own imperfections means accepting imperfections in others, both within our group and outside it.
  • Humans tend to justify their aggression as caused by someone else.
  • Our cultures shape our ways of speaking and perception, and we must both respect and reflect on our and others' status in that culture.

There’s a curious thing about human aggression, regardless of who inflicts it, how minor or extreme it is, or who is victimized. Humans justify our aggression against other people as deserved.

In part, that’s because we are moral people—we perceive ourselves as good and reasonable people, so when we behave badly or unreasonably, it’s because someone did or said something to “make us” behave badly. Unless we’re sociopathic, we don’t want to think of ourselves as cruel, so we reason that it’s other people’s cruelty, bad character, or aggression that compels us to act or speak aggressively to correct a real or perceived injustice. Whether warfare, marriage, social media, or an encounter with a stranger in traffic or the grocery store, we assign moral culpability to someone else, and moral integrity to ourselves. It’s what makes us human.

This universal truth is all the more relevant in these troubling social times. America hasn’t been this socially divided in decades, as the left and right sequester themselves in their virtue, pointing to each other as the problem.

As these social identities become increasingly defined by their contrast to “the other,” however, our greatest aggression is not always aimed at “the other side,” but at those “on the same side.” Veer the slightest in the other direction, use the wrong word, like or defend the wrong person, hold a differing view about one thing, and you’re cast out.

Social pressure to conform

We’re primates, and primates depend on each other for survival. This also means we punish our own by casting out any perceived threat to our survival. What that means in divided social times is the pressure is heavy to fall in line, join in the condemnation of those who fail to do so, and amplify our moral virtue as we demonize the moral failings of those on the other side of our divides. It’s what’s made Fox News so profitable, Trumpism so powerful, and mainstream media and popular culture so seemingly liberal.

The consequence of this social pressure to conform in whole, not part, however, undermines our security and safety, as the penalties grow greater for increasingly more trivial offenses, whether on the left, right, or center of the political spectrum. Whether it’s the RNCC insisting political donors give money every month or be branded “defectors” and reported to their leader, or liberal talk show hosts being fired for defending unpopular opinions and being branded white supremacists in social media, our social codes of conduct are becoming more rigid and more prescribed for all.

The solution to polarization

So how might we build a more secure and peaceful society otherwise? It starts with looking less at the other side, less at the others within our group who deviate from our social standards, and more, ever more so, at ourselves.

This is not to suggest we don’t take moral positions; indeed, we must. And I am not suggesting that we excuse the hostility, aggression and abuse others engage in. Nor am I suggesting that we wallow in guilt for who we are or how we’ve been born or what mistakes we’ve made.

What I am suggesting is that we reflect on the multitude of ways in which we define our own goodness by how forcefully we condemn others’ badness, especially when that “badness” is framed as how we communicate, what we believe about the afterlife if there even is one, the kinds of foods we eat or clothes we wear or the way we pledge allegiance to a flag or kneel in protest of how we’re policed or governed. These are cultural features, honed by decades of growing up in certain times, certain communities, under certain rules and values. Many are goofy, some twisted and cruel. Most serve some function in maintaining social stability—and often that social stability comes at the price of certain social sectors remaining undervalued, marginalized, and abused, in which case, cultural reflection—and change—is in order.

Reflecting on our cultural foundations requires reflecting on our own place in that culture, on who is and isn’t served in that culture, and listening to their views and experiences—whether they’re one up in society, or one down. Which gets back to reflecting on ourselves.

We want to be valued. We believe ourselves to be good. Yet those people we don’t value and don’t perceive as good, want also to be valued, believe themselves to be good.

By escalating our demonization of the other—whether on the other side of our political divides or on our own side but deviating in some respect—we reinforce the divisions. We provoke those on the other side to dig in their heels and become all the more what we don’t like and pressure those on our own side to be less unique, less distinct, to think less for themselves, and more like those in positions of influence. And thus, the divides grow greater.

By reflecting on our own experiences, our own vulnerabilities, and our own need to be a unique member of society, we grant ourselves permission to be imperfect, and deserving of love and respect. Yet with that recognition of our place in society, we must logically extend the same to those alongside us and across from us and grant them permission to be imperfect.

Together, we are better positioned to live securely. Divided, we are more insecure, and it is our own group that is most likely to foster that insecurity as the social divisions grow greater and calls for conformity intensify. So how can we unite while remaining true to our values?

We allow those in our own social group to make mistakes. We allow them to have different opinions on different things. We allow them to make amends for hurting others without demonizing them or casting them out. We allow for them to grow and change and embrace differing values as they do so. And we allow for those in other social groups to participate in society without threatening their lives, without dehumanizing them, and without refusing them entry into our own world should they have a change of heart and mind and come around to “our side.”

It’s really that simple, and it’s really that hard. We can’t change the world until we change ourselves. And we can’t build a more peaceful, prosperous, and participatory society without welcoming small steps toward that vision, and great leaps toward the future.

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