What Unites Us

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I'd like to tell you about an incident I had a few months back on social media.  I noticed a friend with substantially different political views from mine, posting what I suppose must have been, in retrospect, a rhetorical question about "liberals and how they think." I replied to it, politely, respectfully and intelligently, assuming he'd asked the question because he wanted to understand a perspective that differed from his own.  One of his friends replied to my comment with ANGRY COMMENTS IN ALL CAPS that weren't quite as well-reasoned as my own, from my perspective, but I took the time and trouble to respond to them politely, maintaining my desire to be informative and get to a place of civil discourse.  My friend deleted the entire thread.  I reached out to him privately and expressed remorse that my wish to be informative had caused so much conflict.  I told him that it was important to me to retain connections with people of differing opinions, because that's increasingly necessary today, and he agreed.  The next day, he sent a note out that he was "taking a break from social media" because he hated it, and was unfriending everyone, but it was nothing personal.  It's a small world, though, so I still see his comments on the posts of mutual friends.  I suspect he may have only unfriended people that weren't like-minded with respect to politics - or maybe he just unfriended me, that's certainly possible!

From where I sit, the most dangerous trend in America is our increasing tribalism.  To the greatest degree in our country's history since the Civil War, we're separating ourselves into factions and demonizing the people on the other side.  We no longer think of ourselves as "We the People," it's becoming "us versus them."  In the conversations I've had so far in this campaign, with people of all political stripes, I hear occasional comments like, "I wouldn't vote for a Democrat if my life depended on it," or, "This is proof that all Republicans are evil."  More often, though, the people I talk to express an eager desire to return to civil discourse, to elect politicians that work cooperatively for the betterment of the community, and who listen to all the people they represent, not just the people they agree with.

The unifying potential of the technology of connection that has sprung up in the past thirty years has become little more than a lost opportunity, and it isn't the fault of the technology.  The fault lies in our humanity and its clash with that technology - the two gears of human nature and technology are grinding up against each other with sub-optimal results.  

When we first started climbing up the evolutionary ladder, human beings could not survive as "rugged individualists" - we needed our group to eat and live through winter.  Over millennia, we passed along the genetic traits of sensitivity to the opinions of others - because insensitive jerks tended to get kicked out of the cave to be eaten by saber-tooths.  In the centuries since, the people that were aware of social cues tended to get more dates than those that weren't and thus, passed on that awareness to their children.  It's so refined in us now to seek the positive approval of our peers, and the corollary, to fear the disapproval, that scientists have noticed that people receiving social criticism - being told, "No, you're wrong" – show activity in the same part of their brains as physical pain appears.  Scientists believe that’s why so many people fear public speaking: it’s an entire roomful of peers that might disapprove of us and kick us out of the cave!  We feel like we must seek and retain the approval of our group to survive - even though that survival is not as threatened as it was twenty thousand years ago.  Our brains can't tell the difference.  

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At the same time, technology is shrinking the world at an accelerating rate.  When you can sit down at any computer and immediately communicate with any person in front of a computer in Ho Chi Minh City or Helsinki or Harare, how do you define "our group?" Some people react to this inevitable world-shrinkage with hostility and alarm, and they lash out at the people getting closer to them.  We've seen evidence of this in such diverse places as Mosul and Charlottesville, in Richmond and Urumqi.  Some people want their groups to remain small and very specific.  Larger groups present a greater risk of social pain.  

The "public square" used to be a physical place, an actual public square, and it was a place you had to go to conduct personal business, hear the latest news, interact with the state and socialize with your peers - where is that place now?  All of these functions have moved - either partially or completely - into online places.  When the public square was physical, you had to interact with people you disagreed with - there was no avoiding them.  You had to be civil, and you had to listen to your neighbors, even when you disagreed with them.  

Technology changed all that.  We now have the ability to self-select our public squares.  We can watch news catered to our opinions.  Media corporations have happily responded to the demand for programming that prevents us having to feel the pain of being wrong about our beliefs.  We can remove from the square all of the people that might disagree with us, and live happily in a cocoon of comforting agreement.

But of course it doesn't make us happy.  Most often these cocoons enrage us, because they render us less able to hear the ideas of people that are different, and that acting against our instincts to build communities and cooperate - it frustrates us, because we know it's wrong.  I believe we must work past the pain and fear of hearing differing opinions, and start working together to build the world we all want, our mutual goal of a world of peace, opportunity and cooperation.  

I'm a Democrat, and proud of it, but I seek out the opinions of people that aren't.  I make it a monthly mission to check the websites of media outlets far to the right of my position.  I cherish the friendships I have with people that disagree with me, and I love a spirited but civil debate.  One of my primary motivations for being in this race is to bring back the kinds of conversations we had, as a people, in the public square.  As a people, as a nation, and as a state, we have to see ourselves as - in precisely this order - fellow humans, fellow Americans, and fellow Texans.