Divisiveness destroys friendships, families, communities, and nations. There may be that coworker who constantly gossips, or relative who insists on bringing up the most controversial topics at Thanksgiving, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stop using divisive language yourself and do your part to build bridges.
The “Why?” of Division-Making
There are several things that motivate people to use divisive language, such as power, money, and pride. Hitler’s tactic of creating “otherness” was to use of the ugliest of all tricks: dehumanize humans. He classified Jews, Blacks, Slavs, gays, and Modern artists as subhuman. Once you close the doors to humanity and brotherhood, you open the doors to discrimination and violence. Unfortunately this type of propaganda is still proving to be effective, as huge groups of people are demeaned and because of their race, religion, status, or ideologies.
Money can be another major motivator to divide. There are people who make a living inciting anger and closing minds. Producers and hosts of certain reality TV shows and talk shows are selling contention and we are buying it! Name calling and chair throwing can boost ratings. Political analysts that treat people with different opinions as stupid, out of touch, or down right evil “enemies” are stirring the pot. There are trolling factories in Russia, in which bots and full time employees write contentious posts on controversial topics. Senator Lankford on the House Intelligence Committee has said, “What Russia seems to want is divisiveness everywhere else, and they try to get a competitive advantage by destabilizing every country around them.” *
Why do we buy into the discord? Does it make us any happier? Does it bring us peace? No, we, who aren’t gaining prestige and monetary gain, like the idea of being right. Too often, we’d rather be right than be good. We take pride in thinking we know better and see clearly, while those in the other group, are confused. We want to think they are the problem and we are the solution, whether it is true or not.
How to Combat Divisiveness:
Culture humility in yourself
Ego can be our downfall. The idea that you can only be right if someone else is wrong is prideful. There’s a chance that you are wrong. You can’t believe everything you think. In fact, half of intense memories of 9/11 turned out to be false memories just one year after the event. You can choose not to be offended when someone bashes one of your beliefs, or even when they bash you and your people.
You don’t know what you don’t know. Try to find someone who is very different from you: a different race, a different religion, a different political party, maybe someone with a disability, and learn something from them. Befriend them. Invite them to lunch. Be polite and open minded. My son has befriended a homeless man. He takes him out to dinner and they talk about the man’s previous career in I.T. Empathy is one of the noblest and underrated virtues. You can’t obtain this virtue without exposing yourself to ideas and situations that are outside your normal experience.
Find sources that are as unbiased as possible
Too many of us are living in an echo chamber and unaware that our algorithms are keeping us from seeing the whole picture. Look for the least biased sources you can find and be completely honest with yourself. A source that shares your bias doesn’t mean it is impartial. Also, when trying to learn about an organization, go directly to that organization. Don’t believe articles about what NASA says; go to NASA’s website. Differentiate between fact and opinion, between informative and persuasive writings on current events.
Look for common ground
My immediate family is very politically diverse. There were six of us growing up together and during the last presidential election each of my three closest siblings (by age), voted for a different candidate. If you were to see my siblings and I at the last family reunion, you would have seen us visiting from early morning until late at night, without a shadow of contention. Interesting people have varied interests and there are an infinite number of topics to discuss besides the hot button topics. There is so much all of us, as humans, have in common and not just on a superficial level. Actively seek to find ways to connect.
Don’t feel pressure to form an opinion
Being comfortable with ambiguity is an important skill in these days of knee-jerk reactions, when people feel they are supposed to have a strong opinion on a subject the moment they finish reading a headline. Wise is the man or woman who hears a statement and says, “I will need to learn a lot more about that before I have anything to say about it.” There would be less division if there were more tolerance for unknowns.
Keep your mouth closed
Granted, not everything needs a lot of research for you to have an opinion about it. It is OK for you to think tattoos are ugly, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to go around telling people you think their tattoos are ugly. Divisiveness often comes from self-righteousness and feeling the need to go around forcing your opinion on others. Lao Tzu said, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”
There are rare exceptions to this rule, however, such as when someone is being bullied or slandered. In these moments, when you must speak in order to maintain your integrity, use a tone of civility and let your comment reveal a truth. Recently, I told an acquaintance, “Just so you know, every time you make blanket insults of members of a political party, any major party, you are insulting someone I love.” She seemed to understand.
Stop reading the comments
There will always be those who can’t keep their mouths closed for even a moment, but you don’t have to expose yourself to their toxic spew. Don’t waste your time and ruin your day by reading the comments under an article or posted on a friend’s Facebook page by their friends. Haters are gonna hate and you don’t have to get sucked into convincing strangers or even friends that they’re wrong. Research says they’ll dig their heels in and become even more convinced that their position is right.
Put others first
As popular as it may seem to put yourself before your spouse, party before country, and country before world, I believe that the happiest life is a selfless life. Self-centeredness causes you to isolate yourself from people who could make your life better. Systemic nationalism, sexism, and racism separates groups that could be serving each other. By reaching out, even to help someone who seems like an opponent is not self defeating. The connections you make will likely turn out to be mutually beneficial.
Safeguard yourself against hypocrisy:
My mom told me that whenever she sees a person doing something that really annoys her, she asks herself, “Do I ever do that?” and the answer is “yes” 100% of the time. The same can be done with groups of people. Does my party ever engage in corruption? Yes, yes they do. My dad, who is extremely tolerant and a friend to all, has said to me, “A racist is the last one to know. Am I racist? You tell me.” That courage to self-reflect is the only way to grow as a human being and a human race.
The world is a big place. Big enough for lots of types of people and lots of kinds of ideas. The world is also a small space, and we need to learn to get along, not only to survive, but to thrive. A little kindness can go a long way to bridge differences and unite us as a people.
* “Russian Trolls are flooding Social Media with Messages, Meant to Increase Tensions in the U.S.” is the title of a February 21, 2018 NPR all things considered interview with