Want Unity? Tame the pandemic…and I don’t mean COVID

Melanie SturmAmerican Politics, American Society, American Values31 Comments

In a joke illuminating our divided times, a husband suspects his wife is deaf and decides to test her hearing. While she’s cooking, he stands afar and asks, “what’s for dinner, dear?”  Hearing no response, he moves progressively closer, continuously questioning until he’s behind her.  “What’s for dinner, dear?” he repeats, to which his wife testily replies, “for the fifth time, meatloaf!”

Often, we think others are deaf when we’re the ones with the hearing problem – a syndrome reaching pandemic proportions in our increasingly polarized culture where “I’m right, you’re wrong” thinking proliferates, catching dissidents-turned-heretics of varying persuasions in a thought-police dragnet. 

Believe you’re immune to this contagion? Think Again. Humans crave social integration and approval, finding it in social media’s echo chambers where one can turn a “deaf ear” to information disconfirming their bias, and be “all ears” to whatever confirms it.  

I call this phenomenon “curated tribalism,” and it’s contaminating the greatest continuing experiment in human history – the American Idea that people with differing beliefs, values and ethnicities could together forge a freer and fairer nation.  As the contagion spreads, trust in civil society’s indispensable institutions – media, academia, and our justice and electoral systems – is evaporating.

So vital is free expression to a healthy, innovative and prosperous society, America’s founders implanted it in the First Amendment and our cultural DNA. Only a few centuries old, this human-rights-assuring ideal produces cultures where differences are settled in the marketplace of ideas — not by thought police. 

Though not perfect, our system was designed to protect the weakest and most unorthodox voices and to challenge odious speech with better speech that clarifies and informs. Whether this system can withstand today’s cancel culture firing squads and Big Tech’s censorship onslaught remains the question.

Considering that “cancel” was the third most-used word of 2020 – behind COVID and pandemic – it’s not surprising that 62 percent of Americans self-censor to avoid reputation and career-ending consequences, according to a Cato Institute survey. That doesn’t include the ongoing multi-platform purge of undesirables from social media, further consolidating the conformity surveillance state.

If you’ve been unfairly judged and unable to speak your mind, you know the pressure of percolating frustration.  To appreciate the collective powder keg that’s brewing, multiply that by tens of millions of “heretics” whose pent-up resentments have nowhere to vent.

So, if “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, conformist cancel culture is rendering us deaf and dumb.

To break through conformist thinking, let’s apply Fitzgerald’s intelligence test to our era’s most vexing conflicts, going beyond approved narratives to understand the myriad ways people are affected:

  • People vulnerable to COVID-19 must be protected.  Shouldn’t we also protect people vulnerable to COVID lockdowns? 
  • George Floyd’s senseless killing was unjust. Wasn’t the ensuing violence that destabilized communities and victimized innocents also unjust?  Isn’t equality under the law the antidote to racism?
  • Despite efforts to upend the election, the Electoral College worked, and presidential power transferred peacefully. That said, Harvard’s Electoral Integrity Project reported that U.S. elections from 2012 through 2018 rated “lower than any other long-established democracies and affluent societies,” and 55 percent of Americans surveyed by Hill/HarrisX in 2020 believed the upcoming election would “be rigged.” So, shouldn’t we enact reforms to restore trust in the electoral system, and those elected by it?
  • The desperate, foolish and lawless Capitol Hill rioters must be prosecuted. Shouldn’t we also try to address the disenfranchisement and grievances felt by 70 percent of Americans who believe “our political system seems to only be working for insiders with money and power,” according to a 2019 NBC/WSJ poll?

Hashing out our differences in this thoughtful and civil way won’t feed the outrage beast created by the fusion of corporate media, big tech and politicians – they accumulate too much money and power by exploiting divisions – but vast majorities of Americans are not ideologues, believing in the American Idea

During prior divisive times, we’ve had leaders who helped advance this idea by encouraging us to have “charity for all and malice for none” (Abraham Lincoln), and to “learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools” (Martin Luther King Jr). 

So, unplug from cable TV, the parrot-like mainstream press, and the social media memes and mobs destroying our moral consensus. Find free and heterodox thinkers to inform and inspire you. Have conversations with people who think differently, always practicing the Golden Rule while questioning, listening and searching for common ground.  

Think Again – if we listen to understand rather than reply, might we become a wiser and more united country where silence is truly golden, and not deafening?

31 Comments on “Want Unity? Tame the pandemic…and I don’t mean COVID”

    1. Excellent logic …but hard to have a meaningful conversation when the other side isn’t willing or interested in any dialogue!
      JimG

  1. Very nicely put, my dear, but your problem is asking and looking for rationality and intellectual exchange, both of which the leftists have long abandoned in favor of emotion and FORCE. Put another way, you’re bringing a logical knife to an emotional gunfight.

    1. Forrest, you have explained the problem. Conservatives do not cancel, censor or shout. Confidence in your beliefs allows you to listen and discuss. There is fear and loathing on the other side. Difficult to wrestle with a pig, we look silly and the pig enjoys it.

  2. Melanie,you dissertation is excellent with one flaw.There is no way to address disenfranchise and dissatisfaction of our election with corrections and dialogue if, more than 60 lawsuits with decisions from many Republican judges appointed by Trump denied there was fraud. Additionally AG Barr and Homeland Security denied there was fraud.The problem is Trump and his power addict republican enablers. His followers are cult dependent and must be reprogramed.Only the Republicans can do that is order to calm the inflammatory rhetoric and activate their listening skills. They believe there was fraud because Trump brainwashed them and his enablers reaffirmed. These supporters do not know or understand Hitlers rise to power ,destroying a democratic republic to become Germany’s dictator.Trump operates out of that playbook.Its a fascinating read.Our understanding and opinions must be based on the same set of facts, the truth.We came so close to losing our Democracy on Jan 6 that it is incomprehensible.Had those violators killed VP Pence and Pelosi or destroyed the boxes of electoral votes Trum would have ordered Marshall law and retained the Presidency.We were that close.The rhetoric has to contained within the confines of the 1st amendment when it leads to violence, hate destruction or is clearly outside of the norms of basic humanity.

    1. Hi Barbara, I’m grateful for your comment, which I suggest respectfully, is illustrative of the curated tribalism phenomenon I describe in my commentary. So thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify!

      It’s clear how fervently you care about America, believe what you believe, and have the facts to back it up. Can you imagine that in our divided country there are equally fervent and good Americans who believe an opposite narrative, and also have facts to back it up? And there is little that could be said to disconfirm their belief — social scientists call it “confirmation bias.” I won’t take the time to explain the opposing narrative and associated facts because I know it would only further entrench you in your belief — social scientists call that the “backfire effect.”

      I would only ask that you take the time to consider neutral thinkers — people willing to call “balls and strikes.” One I like, Bret Weinstein, is a man of the left whose experience being ejected from Evergreen college where he was a professor led him to start a popular YouTube podcast called Dark Horse where he searches for truth. You can read his story here: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-campus-mob-came-for-meand-you-professor-could-be-next-1496187482
      Bret interviewed a journalist named Jeremy Lee Quinn (a self-proclaimed Bernie Sanders supporter) who was at the capitol riots on January 6th where he interviewed many protestors. It’s a fascinating and illuminating interview! Here is the link to that podcast: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFJdjO0fD4E

      I very much respect you and your intelligence and know you’ll have some interesting thoughts to share in response. I look forward to them!
      Best,
      Melanie

  3. Brilliant! Well said. Thank you for writing this and so clearly explaining the dynamic we are all faced with.

    1. Thank you Chad! So glad to see you on my site!!! I look forward to dialoguing with you as things progress!

  4. Melanie, I am one person who left the Republican Party after being a life long Republican. I don’t have the time to articulate the reasons why but I believe the core of our great democracy requires diplomacy and respect for all points of view. To this end, I agree with you. I simply would conclude that was lost in the last four years.

    Your sponsor for the Leadership Colorado program.

    1. Hi David, thanks for reading and commenting! Alas, I think the incivility you lament started long ago. Saul Alinsky’s rules are now writ large in society, especially character assassination. Rather than try to persuade, better to discredit and delegitimize the other person so no one will listen to them. As Alinsky once counseled anti-Vietnam students in 1972, rather than protest a speaker, better to go dressed in Ku Klux Klan garb with signs supporting the speaker! Be sure to read the Bari Weiss article to which I link in my newsletter.

  5. Hi Melanie, good to have you back. And I love the graphic design of your new site.

    I support your over-riding principles in this essay, and it’s appalling how some of the commenters are falling right into the trap that you are trying to explain. I discount immediately anyone who uses phrases like “the other side” or “(______) do not” since these generalizations are destroying our ability to accept that a person willing to learn is usually someone who understands complexity and nuance.

    My question is why is this happening now? We disagreed with each other in college, but we didn’t generally go into silos like people do today. Personally, I think some of the responsibility lies with, as you say, how social media allows us to curate. I also think the 24-hour news cycle is partly responsible. And it’s very hard to wean people off of those things.

    1. Thanks for reading Lloyd, and for giving me your great thoughts! As for your question regarding why is this happening now, I have a few thoughts.

      First, Abraham Lincoln mused that the philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of society and government in the next. You and I have discussed what our kids are being taught before they get to college. Once once they’re on campus, illiberalism and “I’m right, you’re not just wrong you’re evil” philosophy sets in.

      I think Jonathan Haidt’s latest book — The Coddling of the American Mind (https://www.thecoddling.com) — answers your questions. Illiberalism is an outgrowth of three terrible ideas that have become increasingly woven into American childhood and education: !) What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; 2) always trust your feelings; and 3) life is a battle between good people and evil people. These three bad ideas contradict basic psychological principles about well-being and embracing these untruths — and the resulting culture of safetyism — interferes with young people’s social, emotional, and intellectual development. Now these young people, bred on illiberalism, inhabit news rooms, Big Tech companies, and other important institutions.

      In my latest Persuasion Pearls newsletter, I quote Solzhenitsyn and link to a recent Bari Weiss essay, both of which explain a lot. Be sure to check them out!

  6. Hi. I didn’t know you were doing a news column again. Look forward to hearing your thoughts during this challenging time in our lives. My best.

  7. The election is was stolen by mass, in our faces vote fraud. The evidence is overwhelming for everyone willing to look. The Republic will not survive corrupt, rigged elections.

    If America and freedom are to survive, we need to choose reality over wishful thinking. The Rep Party is mostly weak, cowardly and corrupt. They are content to be junior partners in the swamp. But, the Dem Party is evil, dangerous, and devoid of all moral and legal scruples. [I am not talking about the rank in file “school of fish” who turn this and that way on que] but rather about the leaders such as Pelosi, Schumer, Obama, Soros, Zuckerberg etc.

    1. Hi Gregory, your comment reflects the desire of so many to elect people who will represent “we the people” in Washington, not the special, crony interests who want to preserve the status quo.

      Again, applying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s test of intelligence: If you’re opposed to Joe Biden’s family having financial ties to the communist Chinese party, don’t you also have to be outraged by the financial ties that Senator Mitch McConnell and his wife former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao have to the communist Chinese?

      Thanks again for your readership, and comments!

      Best,
      Melanie

  8. Should those who committed, organized and funded the “ensuing violence that destabilized communities and victimized innocents” also be prosecuted?

  9. Great job Melanie! As always, you are thoughtful and articulate and you always try to find common ground. I am willing to listen and try to understand the other side. However, I am not so sure about the other side and their willingness to do the same!

  10. Hi Melanie, glad to read your intelligent and articulate comments. I agree that the only way through this is to exchange views in a civilized way. So, can you please explain why Donald Trump was acquitted after the irrefutable evidence was presented. It showed a long and deliberate plan to make people question the legitimacy of our elections, leading to the attack on the capital. Mitch McConnell summed it up perfectly, so why didn’t he and other Republicans vote for impeachment?

    1. Hi Susan, Nice to see you reading and commenting here!

      I understand you’re furious with the outcome of the impeachment trial. To deal with the outrage in our country (that the media helps whip up), I tried to make the point in my column that we must try to understand the greater context of any issue. Just as I encouraged Barbara (above), I encourage you to seek out neutral parties willing to call “balls and strikes.”

      I like Jonathan Turley who is highly respected by all sides as a civil libertarian, constitutional scholar, professor at GW Law school with an award-winning legal blog. Here’s his bio: https://jonathanturley.org/about/

      Turley’s blog is full of analysis on the impeachment trial, and his latest post helps answer your question: https://jonathanturley.org/2021/02/15/mutual-destruction-how-trumps-trial-became-a-tale-of-constitutional-noir/#more-169406

      I encourage you to read prior posts from last week to get a more detailed analysis of the impeachment process.

      Second, though I didn’t address impeachment in my column, we can apply F. Scott Fitzgerald’s test to the issue, revealing a larger context. Again, the assumption is that we can hold two opposed ideas in mind simultaneously and retain the ability to function.

      For example, there are tens of millions in our split country who believe that the Capitol riots were horrific and despicable and that every last perpetrator must be arrested and held to account.

      Is it also fair for these very people to also believe in the wake of violence, destruction and death (including police officers), that any politician of any party who encouraged followers to “fight” to “take back this country” or a “whirlwind will be unleashed,” and who excused destruction and even helped bail out the violent perpetrators (who went on to commit more heinous crimes), that they all should be held to the same standard — either they all are excused, or they all are brought before impeachment proceedings, regardless of their party?

      In sum, there are a lot of people who think it unfair that some politicians can get away with inflammatory rhetoric that leads to violence and death, while others can not. Can you appreciate their outrage?

      As I wrote in my newsletter, the greatest societal changes begin in our hearts. Can you find empathy in yours for those who see things differently from you, remembering this observation of the Soviet dissident Alexandre Solzhenitsyn?

      “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.”

      I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. I look forward to them, and thank you for your readership, and for caring so much about our country!

      Best,
      Melanie

  11. Melanie,

    This is excellent! We need more conservative voices reminding us about the virtues of intellectual honesty and cultivating a willingness to listen and attempt to understand each other.

    Bless you!

    Mark

  12. Dear Melanie, Coaxing people to look at all the facts, not a “curated “ set of facts, is the challenge we face. I struggle with this, as it represents the wall that separates left from right. Personally, I believe that people like Bari Weiss deserve a much bigger platform to bring a fresh honesty and counter argument to the cancel culture, and, rather than “rush to the barricades,” we discover the commonalities that binds us together.
    My hope is that your voice Melanie will cause us all to take a deep breath , stop parroting go -to responses as some have replied above, and to leave our thought silos for greener pastures. Pat Lally

  13. Dear Melanie,
    The work you are doing is valuable for Americans to see through the untruths and realize how many thoughts and values we ALL have in common. Grateful, Lynette

  14. Melanie,

    This is one of the best written, most thought provoking pieces I’ve read in a very long time. Our country’s dedication to individual liberty and true freedom of speech is being tested right now on an unprecedented scale. Like you and so many of your commenters have said, much of that can be laid at the feet of Big Tech/social media and corporate media who, with intention, control the narrative for the vast majority of Americans. Again, as you said, not only were these members of the media educated to believe certain idealogical tenets (I saw it in my own 3 children and have done some of my own research into J schools on campus) but now they have 24/7 news channels to program and pay for. And now it seems that mind-hive broadcasting and publishing best pays the bills – 2 birds, 1 stone. I fear that it’s going to be an uphill battle, and I hope and pray that messages like yours are heard and Americans will eschew the manipulators and will instead reach out to each other and find the common ground. Like Maya Angelou said, “we are more alike than unalike”. That’s the glue that keeps us together – as Americans and human beings.

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