Saturday, September 02, 2006

Why Can't We Just Get Along?

I notice with some alarm that a lot of my post titles seem to be questions. Perhaps that's because I've been teaching so long that I feel I shouldn't speak about what I think or feel unless interest is overtly expressed first. Maybe I'm just "inviting" myself to speak in the absence of someone else to do it for me.

At any rate, a really dumb letter in Cary Tennis's advice column on Salon got me thinking about something. The letter is about how someone is leaving print-outs of politically conservative material on the men's room floor. The author of the letter is in "vociferous" disagreement of the content of the letter but also annoyed that a neutral territory like the men's room is being turned into a passive-aggressive political arena. And, oh yes, it's being littered on as well.

This letter, in which someone bothers to get worked up about the type of trash left on the bathroom floor, and Cary's reply started me thinking about just how intolerant people have become of political dissent among their associates, friends, and family. There was a time when such issues were not discussed because they could lead to inflamed emotional states and conflict. While that time has thankfully passed, it seems to have been replaced by a situation where we exercise zero empathy for the opposing side and begin to estimate the opposing party's entire character as being repugnant based on political views alone.

I have to wonder what brought us to this state of discourse when the topic of politics is raised. I believe it is possible that everyone is so unhappy and feels that anyone who doesn't agree with their way of pursing their own personal success is a threat to their happiness and well-being. In essence, people of opposing views become "the enemy" who will act to make you pay more or less taxes, get more or less health care, have higher or lower wages, increase or decrease military protection, or force you to abandon your religion or embrace theirs. The scarier thought to me is that I don't know how this can stop given the slow degradation of lifestyle in the U.S. and the culture of entitlement. People feel they deserve more but are constantly getting less.

Situations like this do remind me though of how one of my students reacted when I talked to her about how I wouldn't read a famous science fiction author who was vehemently anti-gay. While she also feels it's wrong to be prejudiced against homosexuals, she also said that she would not reject anyone's views out of hand. She said that she would listen and try to understand their point of view. I imagine this is a way of thinking rooted in the culture of consensus. If you listen to everyone and understand their viewpoint, there may be a satisfactory middle ground. This is an element of Japanese culture which I hope is not lost in the increasingly westernized way of living. Perhaps if we were all a little more interested in finding the middle ground than getting our way or proving we are right, there'd be a lot less anger in the world and we'd all be more satisfied with the slice of pie we are given in life.

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