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Why Are We So Divided?

After a bitter election, we urgently need more mutual understanding.

sabinurce/pixabay CC0 public domain
Source: sabinurce/pixabay CC0 public domain

Americans are reeling in shock, horror, or delight. Presidential elections are always hard-fought, inspiring strong feelings in those most engaged with politics and current affairs. But this one has stirred up nastier emotions: never in modern times have so many shown cold hatred for one of the major candidates, or sheer desperation for the other to triumph. Bystanders around the world, including in Scotland where I live, are watching with fascination or dismay as America wakens to life with President-elect Trump.

For many of us, it seems impossible to imagine voting for ‘the other one’, yet tens of millions of people can’t imagine voting ‘our’ way.  This gulf of mutual bafflement is one of many urgent problems which now face Americans, who must ask: How did we get here? And how can we move on?

People vote for many overlapping reasons, both admirable and far-from-admirable.  We differ in our values, our principles, our priorities.  And that’s OK, up to a point—the purpose of democratic systems is to enable us to live together, and gain the benefits of community, without forcing us all into a single ideology.  But to live as one nation, to survive the disappointment of seeing ‘our’ candidate lose, and to restrain the hubris that tempts us when ‘we’ win, we need better understanding of others’ lives.  We need to understand why other people do not share our values or priorities, even if we don’t expect to convert them.

It can be especially difficult to understand why others feel the emotions they do.  Even if we can understand this intellectually, we may not grasp how visceral the feelings are.  What is it like to live in fear, of poverty—relative or absolute—or of crime, or of police brutality affecting you, your friends, or your children?  It’s hard to know if you haven’t experienced these fears for yourself.

So how can we learn more about others lives? We face many obstacles: the limitations of traditional media in the internet age; the bubbles of like-minded folk created by social media, along with wildfire ‘fake news’ stories; deep-seated problems in the education system; and of course the fact that we all lead busy lives, with our own problems, leaving little mental space for thoughts of strangers. 

But we should recognize too that sometimes we just don’t want to know what life is like for other people. Knowledge can make us powerful, but sometimes we use not-knowing to our advantage too. 

Almost twenty years ago, Charles W. Mills wrote presciently about the temptations of not-knowing. Mills received his PhD at the University of Toronto, and is now Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  He argues that strategic ignorance of others’ lives can be a vital weapon in the struggle to dominate or oppress those people.

Professor Mills writes powerfully about slavery, and of contemporary racial injustices; he emphasizes the comfort for slave owners of remaining ignorant about the basic humanity of black slaves, or, today, the comfort of remaining ignorant of the continuing inequality of opportunity faced by black people.  Many white people, then and now, genuinely do not know about black people’s lives.  But, argues Mills, that’s partly because it suits them better that way.

Strategic ignorance can be a problem even where race is not the central concern.  Many men do not know what it is like to face routine low-level street harassment, and even well-meaning men may prefer not to know; after all, most women would also prefer not to know what this is like.  People who are financially secure may prefer not to know what it is like to struggle every day to put food on the table. Even within the family, parents may exert their authority by refusing to know what’s really going on in their children’s lives.

Not all of our ignorance about other people is strategic ignorance in Mill’s sense; sometimes it is genuinely difficult to get knowledge even when we try our best.  And not all of our bitter divisions can be attributed to ignorance: Sometimes we know full well what other people think and feel, yet we discount it nevertheless.

But if we can appreciate that we may have got too comfortable with our ignorance of how others live, that’s a first step towards learning more together.  We won’t agree about everything—and nor should we—but perhaps we can begin to understand why we disagree.

Find out more

The ‘Unmute’ podcast has a great post-election episode about knowledge and ignorance: host Myisha Cherry chats with philosophers Meena Krishnamurthy and Rachel McKinnon.  Cherry, Krishnamurthy, and McKinnon are joined by Tempest Henning for an in-depth conversation on this topic at the Huffington Post.  For writings by Professor Mills, see the references below.


Mills, Charles W. (1997). The Racial Contract, Cornell University Press.

Mills, Charles W. (2007). 'White Ignorance', in Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, edited by Sullivan and Tuana, SUNY Press.