I think most of us understand that this country is in the midst of the most acute and chronic era of divisiveness since the Civil War. Too many of us are holed up in our respective silos. It’s us against them; my camp versus your camp. We’re right, you’re wrong. We know the truth, you’re idiots. People are no longer willing to look for common ground and discover what unites us. It’s easier and more emotionally satisfying to focus on what divides us.
Some 90 years ago, General George Patton wrote, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” And, he should know. It’s that very reluctance to think for ourselves that paved the way for Hitler and Stalin and Castro and Mussolini and all the other egomaniacal opportunists.
So, this begs the question, why are some of us so susceptible to propaganda, misinformation, and outright lies? Why are we unwilling to question even the most outlandish proffers? What’s so scary about being curious and contemplative? Why are we so eager to buy into hype no matter how absurd? Are we really afraid to think for ourselves and stand on our own two feet?
Research suggests that some of us simply lack intellectual curiosity, while others are affected by critical thinking deficits and other cognitive impairments. Lack of intellectual curiosity is akin to wearing blinders… seeing just what’s directly in front of our eyes. The only information desired and consumed is that which confirms or amplifies our own narrow set of beliefs. Lack of intellectual curiosity is about righteousness and inflexibility. We can see something with our own eyes, hear it with our own ears, and still disbelieve.
A critical thinking deficit goes a step further. Those among us that lack this skill are incapable of challenging information. We follow rules to the letter, with no exceptions. We accept what we’re told as fact and truth. We go to exhausting extremes to rationalize, deflect, and deny. Many years ago, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said something of particular note on this topic: “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Sadly, for those who lack critical thinking skills, opinion is fact.
There’s another school of thought on this subject, which resonates more deeply with me. Contemporary researcher Brené Brown says it’s our reaction to fear that makes us vulnerable to indoctrination. We’re afraid of what we don’t know or understand. We’re afraid of difference. And, since we’ll do almost anything to avoid feeling the discomfort of fear, we look for someone to blame.
If we can unleash our anger on a villain, we can distract ourselves from looking inward. Some people are angry because they have shitty lives: alone or trapped in a loveless marriages, dysfunctional families, dead-end jobs, bullying bosses, no deep friendships, barely scraping by paycheck-to-paycheck, unemployed or under-employed, with little hope for a better tomorrow. They’re easy psychological marks… low-hanging fruit. They’ve been aggrieved and somebody has to pay. So they’re naturally attracted to the angriest voices.
To avoid our own self-reflection of thoughts and beliefs, we’ll embrace anything that fits into the narrative or thought mantra we’ve adopted. To deviate from our automatic thoughts is frightening because it leads us into the unchartered territory of uncertainty, which is a scary place to be.
Your response to all this might be, so what? Why do we even care? If someone wants to barricade themselves in a bunker of anger and hatred, that’s their right and their problem.
Well, we care because this toxic mindset splinters families, destroys friendships, creates workplace disharmony, and leads to anxiety and despair, manipulation and enmeshment. Not only is the business of divisiveness debilitating; it’s also incongruent with long-standing spiritual and familial values. But, it’s easier to blame someone — anyone — than it is to confront the unvarnished truth that reveals the real problem. We lash out at villains — real or imagined — because they’re easy targets. Assigning blame is a whole lot easier than looking in the mirror.
Issues rarely provide us with binary choices that are solely black or white. The answers usually emanate in the gray matter. All or nothing, either/or are ultimatums, not reasoned choices. And, believe it or not, two opposites can both be true. But holding paradox is uncomfortable. It seems incongruent.
So, what’s the answer to our dilemma? I realize compromise has become a dirty word, but it’s a concept that’s had a long and illustrious track record balancing and stabilizing human relationships of every tone and timbre. Maybe, just maybe, we should stick with something tried and true.
Whatever side of the aisle you sit and wherever you land on the ideological spectrum, it’s high time we all summon the courage to think for ourselves; to question, to challenge, to be curious, to seek the truth, to investigate and research, to compromise, and to develop genuine understanding. Whew, that’s a lot of work. It’s a whole lot easier to just parrot somebody else’s talking points. But, George Patton knew exactly what he was talking about. It would be wise for us to listen and take heed.