By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D.
Several years ago, I established a Facebook account so that I could communicate with the college students I teach on their medium. While the students have moved on to Twitter, Instagram and other cooler modes of communication, I am still stuck on Facebook, mostly to keep in touch with friends and family, but also, I hope, to engage in spirited political debate.
Several weeks ago, my two “Facebook worlds” collided as I began to engage a cousin in what I thought was a friendly debate. After a few such debates, however, I was informed that he was unfriending me and four other people because he found it “easier to delete than debate.” It seems that he had no interest in exploring, considering or even hearing a perspective different from his own. Indeed, in his last message before cutting the cord, my cousin indicated that he was tired of my efforts to force my “indoctrination on him and his friends.”
After recovering from the shock of losing a friend (okay, not really), I realized that my cousin was reflecting perhaps the saddest trend in modern politics: it is indeed easier to delete than debate. Surrounding ourselves with “friends,” websites and media outlets that echo the things, accurate or not, that we already believe, we have no interest in exposing ourselves to ideas, facts or narratives that don’t fit our pre-conceived view of the world. Rather than exposing ourselves to ideas that might indicate we are not correct one hundred percent of the time, we prefer to wrap ourselves in a cocoon of information and friends who agree with us, assuring us that we are indeed always correct and the other side is always wrong. The late US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.” In today’s world of social networks and media bias, people seem to be entitled to their own facts as well.
This might not be too bad (and perhaps not as revolutionary as I think) if it were limited to the masses. However, all you have to do is watch MSNBC or Fox News to find out that policymakers are as segregated as the voters who support them (hmm, I wonder if there is a connection there?!). Conservative policymakers listen to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, cite data from RedState and The Heritage Foundation and speak to us through Fox News. Liberal policy makers listen to Rachel Maddow and Al Sharpton, cite information gathered by Huffington Post and Daily Kos and seldom appear on news shows that don’t reflect their views. I read last week that Chuck Todd admitted not asking some Republicans tougher questions for fear they would never return to “Meet the Press” if he did.
We don’t want our positions challenged, only re-enforced. We don’t want to reach across the partisan or ideological divide to seek a compromise for fear that we might find out that we are not always right. This has not always been the case. Indeed, this country and its government were forged out of compromise by ordinary men who did extraordinary things because they were willing to listen to each other and reach practical solutions (the electoral college, the bicameral legislature and the three-fifths compromise all come to mind). Compromise does not suggest a lack of passion or principles (read the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist papers to see evidence of true debate), but rather an understanding that for the good of the nation or the state, each side must be able to give a little to find that middle ground. The Civil War and the more than 600,000 lives it cost is an extreme example of what happens when we would rather “delete than debate.”
In March (19-21), the State Legislative Leaders Foundation will once again offer legislators from around the country the opportunity to step out of their partisan and ideological cocoons to listen to those who may have different values or represent constituents different from their own. We will do it at the Ronald Regan Presidential Library which celebrates a Republican president who worked with a Democratic House and a Republican Senate to change the nation and the world. We will explore how Reagan and other modern US Presidents practiced the principle of compromise without compromising their principles to make their mark on their nation and the world.
The only way we as a nation can move forward is if we, individually and corporately, realize that nobody is always or completely right. We must come together to share, argue, debate and discuss ideas and solutions to the many problems that face this nation. So, as we move into the new year, I challenge you (and me) to break down some walls – debate issues with someone you don’t agree with; listen to that commentator that drives you nuts; take a political opponent to lunch. And, perhaps, you might find a friend that you don’t want to delete and some new ideas that you can use to make everyone’s lives better!