As I grow older I find myself thinking about politics, policy, and elections less in terms of what it means to me and more in terms of what it means to the country that I live in and love. That is not to say that when I vote I do not vote in what I feel is my best interest, but instead that my interests have been shaped more by the world in which I live and the people that I love than the things I believed when I was younger. I do not think that I am alone in this evolution.
The opinions we hold are shaped by the lives we live and the interactions we have with the people and environment that surround us. It is therefore natural that as our lives progress our views and opinions will change. Everyone lives a different experience and therefore has a different view of the world that is unique unto themselves. I can no more understand the world through a wealthy person’s eyes than she can through my own. Our perception of the world is fundamentally different because our experiences are unique. However, that does not mean we cannot choose to understand.
Just because our experience is unique does not mean we are condemned to be perpetually ignorant to the experience of others. We are not bound to ignorance unless we choose to be. Ignorance is not an excuse for misunderstanding, it is a symptom of failing to make an effort to understand. In the 21st century, with all of the technology and information we have available to us, a failure to understand has no excuse and is a conscious choice that someone makes. Yet many have chosen ignorance nonetheless.
I think after this election it’s clear that too many people have simply chosen to not understand. Too many have chosen to not build bridges but instead walls, to fall victim to divisive rhetoric instead of calls for unity. We as a people have chosen to find what makes us different more than what makes us the same, to separate ourselves into distinct groups with disparate interests instead of communities with common values. Far too many have chosen to take comfort in their ignorance than to force upon themselves the discomfort of trying to understand.
Make no mistake about it, choosing to seek out an enlightened perspective over ignorant assumptions is not comfortable. Challenging long held, very personal beliefs and assumptions about the world is not easy. It can and will make you uncomfortable when confronted with a reality that proves previously believed unfounded facts to be surprisingly false. It is not natural for us to step beyond our comfort zone, to listen instead of talk, to admit error in our reason and not confidence in our opinion. Though it may be difficult and uncomfortable to find understanding and the ability to empathize with people we may not know or understand, I believe it is absolutely essential at this point to do so as Americans if we are ever going to reach our full potential as a nation.
The fact that Americans suffer from an epidemic lack of empathy is undeniable. We just went through one of the most divisive and bruising elections and the result exposed our divisions and lack of understanding like no election before. What we witnessed was a general lack of understanding, respect, and open-mindedness that produced one of the most polarized, yet apathetic electorates ever. Our lack of empathy and unwillingness to see ourselves in others has so poisoned our political discourse and our cultural interactions that we value soundbites more than nuanced debate, easy to accept lies more than hard to accept truths, comfortable misperceptions over unbearable veracities.
This lack of empathy is evident on both the Left and Right of the political spectrum. Ignorance is not exclusive to either Democrats or Republics, Liberals or Conservatives, rich or poor, black or white or brown, Christians, Jews or Muslims, straight or gay people. Ignorance comes in many forms and holds a place in each of us in some way or another. No one person or group is exempt from this ignorance. We all own some amount of ignorance. We all exhibit a blindness to the experience of one group or another at some point and therefore a misunderstanding of them.
Each individual’s ignorance is different based on their own experiences in the world. These blindspots yield the misunderstandings that feed into the bitterness of elections such as the one between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. We are bitter because we do not understand. We do not understand because we fail to seek truth. We fail to seek truth because the truth is often times harder to accept than the lie.
We end up finding identity in our differences instead of in our commonalities. We embrace those parts of ourselves that separate “us” from others instead of those that which bind us all together as Americans. We often find it easier to find a sense of self in what we are not than in what we are, for we can look at others and say they are this or that and I am not. Yet that analysis is false because in a lack of true understanding and minimal exposure our conclusions are based on unfounded beliefs. Unfortunately this is the reality of the America we live in, but it does not have to be, and it cannot be if we are to meet our true potential as a country.
In the wake of elections such as the one that has just passed there is an opportunity to confront our ignorance and in doing so better understand each other and the world in which we live. The vitriol with which the campaign was waged has laid bare the divisions which separate us from each other. Be the divisions economic, racial, sexual, social, or political, we have an opportunity to discuss our differences at this time more than any other. It’s a lot easier to find a remedy when we know the disease.
We know our divisions now better than ever, so why not find within ourselves the strength to bridge those gaps? Why not set aside our own biases and listen to the grievances of each other? Why not try to understand the perspective of people we do not understand so that we can better empathize with their plight? The vast majority of Americans hold common hopes and dreams, the only difference is we seek them out in different ways because our own experience in America is unique.
At this time we may not understand each other, but we can affirm that we would like to know one another better. We can choose a new, better, and more united way forward than the divided path upon which we have already traveled. We do not have to sacrifice the things we believe in to better understand people we do not agree with. We can and always will hold differing opinions, but that does not mean our conversations must always be disagreeable, or that we cannot respect the differing opinions of others. There is a better way forward than the track we are currently on.
What has been, does not have to be. We are no more bound by our past than set free by our future. We can, if we open our minds and our hearts, find a part of ourselves in our shared experience as Americans. We can find common interests that bring us together instead of divisive words that tear us apart. We can choose to reach out to those who have fallen and give them a hand up. We can make those marginalized feel as if they have a place in this country as well. There is plenty room enough for all of us in this country to have a place that we can not just call home, but feel at home in. We can look past what separates us as individuals and find what unites us as Americans. All of this we can do, all of this we must do.
We must do this in order to remain true to our origins. For our founders, faced with unfathomable odds against their fortunes, drew upon their shared grievances and set aside their differences, found strength in the cause of something larger than themselves, pledged not just their lives, but their sacred honor and fortunes, so that we might enjoy the freedoms we do today. With little more than hope and virtue, they committed themselves to a task that seemed impossible. Yet in their unity they found strength, in their strength they found courage, and in their courage the will to face down tyranny and defeat England.
Today we are not faced with such daunting odds nor is the future of our country in such doubt. However, we are faced with a decision of what kind of country we are and what kind of a country we want to be. We are confronted with the uncomfortable reality that we have hard work left to do if we are to pass on to future generations a better country than the one we inherited.
It is now up to this generation of American’s to decide if we will be true to our founding principles of liberty, justice, equality, fairness, inclusiveness, and community or will we allow ourselves to be divided further? Will we find the courage to not just look in the mirror and see what is wrong, but also compassion to look at others and see what is right? Can we find the self-control to recoil from our propensity to divide ourselves over things immaterial to who we are and find ground that is common with people who are foreign? Can we live up to the examples set by generation after generation of Americans across the past 240 years who sat aside their differences and came together in the name of making this country as close to the perfect union as they could?
These are the questions we must now answer as we look at ourselves and the country in which we live. A better future is not guaranteed but it is attainable if we apply ourselves to the cause at hand and commit ourselves to confronting our ignorance. If we commit ourselves to a world in which we all choose to seek understanding when we do not know, common ground when we are apart, and unity over division then we will succeed in passing forth those great gifts of liberty, equality, and justice that have been given to us. It is time for us to start building bridges instead of walls.