Part One: The Box
I’ve had these dreams for several months. They leave me feeling as if I’m stuffed in a box that I can’t get out of.
The dreams are of my childhood in the 1950s in an “everybody-knows-everybody-else” small, rural middle-American town. Our town was divided into religious communities separated by social and cultural walls.
Most of the time, members of one religious community were moderately polite to those of another. Sometimes they even shopped at each other’s stores.
But every now and then, issues boiled over into strident hostility. The most important issue that I remember was alcohol. Some religions drank; others did not, upon pain of eternal damnation. Our family was on the receiving end of this particular hostility, given that my dad ran the only beer joint in town.
In order to ensure religious integrity, our religious leaders and elders warned us that we should never read or expose ourselves to the ideas of the other religions. We were told to never read the secular press, or the books that were banned by our religious hierarchy. We were cautioned to carefully monitor the use of a new invention called “television”. Good standing in our religious community assumed that children were educated in our own elementary schools.
A nightmare? The dream itself is not what leaves me stuffed in a box from which I struggle to escape.
I experience stifling confinement when I step out of the dream and into my everyday life. Suddenly, I find myself in a time warp, with my little 1950’s community transfigured into our 21st century nation, a nation busy building walls around opposing ideological purities.
That’s the box.
· It’s a world of cultural purity: No matter how hard a person tries, someone will call them out for not being progressive, conservative, religious, patriotic, or……..enough.
· It’s t-shirts, hats, bumper stickers and signs of every type proclaiming the dangers of trusting the (wrong) press or your political opponents.
· It’s community school board meetings that morph into an Inquisition into the social or cultural purity of the school staff and curriculum, complete with book burning crusades.
· It’s political leaders identifying which historical facts are politically acceptable enough to be included or excluded from our educational systems.
· It’s state legislatures drafting policy that determines which citizens are to be encouraged or discouraged from voting.
· It’s a nation in which political discussion becomes strained to the point that facts — truths, our most essential common ground — are either considered irrelevant or one group’s personal possession.
All of these things remind me of my childhood, a time when we believed that our group had the “whole truth and nothing but the truth”. In those days, our most important job in life was to defend that truth from those who did not have it, and to avoid becoming one of those misguided “other” people.
In order to know what the truth was, all we had to do was to ask our religious leaders, and to remain within our own religious conversation. This state of affairs is clearly evident in the news and opinion silos that all of us inhabit today, careful to avoid the news and opinions that we find inconsistent with our truth.
There is one part of the scene today that is different. These days, we don’t think of ourselves as blindly following a leader, religion or news host, because we can “do our own research”, as popularized by the Qanon movement.
Unfortunately, unless that research is carefully designed to minimize bias, it will probably yield results identical to the beliefs with which we began.
Why? Reality is so complex and extensive, and our perception of the world so focused and limited, that we can only become aware of a tiny bit of our everyday experience at any particular moment. We get by with that tiny bit by learning what to watch for and what to ignore.
As a result, for the most part, we only see the bits of life that we have predisposed ourselves to see. All of us do this; to a certain extent, we have to; this is part of what it is to be a human being.
And we can pretty much always find something in our everyday life to confirm our pre-existing assumptions, given the actual complexity of reality.
For example, we can usually find someone from any group that we admire or despise behaving exactly the way that we have imagined their entire group to act. If we take this observation as a confirmation of our stereotype, we close the feedback loop of our own closed mind.
It’s easy to see how self-righteous such “research” can make us feel, and how polarizing any discussion based on these efforts would be. It is not that difficult to see how we have arrived where we are at.
These days, it can seem like our inevitable, national fate to fracture into mutually exclusive boxes. But it doesn’t have to be that way. To a certain extent, this perception yet another example of how we only see what we are predisposed to see.
Yes, the boxes are real enough, and we obsess on detailed descriptions of our fragmentation. But this is not the entire story. If we consider the “rest of the story” (Part Two), we may see things differently, and perhaps even develop an escape plan.
Daniel Stuhlsatz is a founding member of the None of the Above Society