Back when I was in college, I began to hear rumors about a popular local nightclub.
When the bouncers at that club grew bored, the story went, they would filter through the crowd and whisper inflammatory things to certain customers (“You wouldn’t believe what that guy over there just said about your girlfriend!”). The idea was to instigate fights that they could then break up.
That may have been just an urban myth, but something similar is at work today on a much larger scale. Everywhere you look or listen, our natural American love of an argument has become exploited to the point of malignancy. Politicians, the media, the Internet, and even religious leaders are all bombarding us with one question: “Which side are you on?” And they won’t take “I’m not sure” for an answer.
It’s hard enough to get along with everyone in our families, workplaces, or social circles. Now, thanks to this relentless polarization, we’re able to hate people we’ve never met.
By the time you read this, a verdict may have already come down in the Minneapolis trial of police officer Derek Chauvin. However, it turns out though, I felt sympathy for the jury. Trying to decide if Chauvin committed murder under the guise of law enforcement in the 2020 death of George Floyd was enough of a challenge, but the media’s zeal for forcing every significant news event into some larger context must have ratcheted up the pressure considerably.
If the jury members convict Chauvin on the charges facing him, it means they are spineless liberals who have chosen criminality over law and order. If they acquit him or reduce the charges, they are racists.
It seems obvious from his record that Chauvin is someone with serious anger issues who should never have been on anyone’s police force. It also came out that he had known Floyd previously, if only casually. Given that, how do we know whether his actions against Floyd were based on racial animus, or something else? Nevertheless, the case has been plugged into the context of the Great American Race War.
Would it have been as much of a news story if Floyd had been white? I wonder. But I also believe it’s possible to institute some changes in the way police officers perform their duties without necessarily having to eliminate every cop’s racial prejudices. You can’t always rewire hearts and minds, but you can alter the way people do things. Putting all this into a black-white context, however, makes the problem of police overreach seem impossible to solve.
There are plenty of other examples of universalizing individual events. Did Amazon and the Alabama workers who tried to form a union really represent opposing sides in the eternal conflict of rich vs. non-rich, or was it just something involving this particular workplace? If Amazon had lost, would that have immediately led to the recognition of unions across the corporate landscape? I doubt it.
Moreover, why hasn’t the issue of whether or not to wear masks and be vaccinated against COVID-19 remained simply a medical question, instead of being dragged into our ongoing culture wars? Ask the politicians.
It has always been in the interest of political office seekers to divide the electorate into “us” and “them,” hoping that the former outnumbered the latter. The difference now is the strident tone this has taken on. If a disagreement arises in Congress anymore, the other person is no longer simply considered misguided or misinformed — he or she must be a “fascist” or a “communist.”
In the process, civility has succumbed to collateral damage. I wonder if this didn’t get worse after the popularity of “extreme talk shows” like Jerry Springer’s became apparent, scenarios where the host intentionally goaded two opposing groups to the point of swearing and throwing chairs at each other. Maybe some political masterminds looked at that and thought: “You know, people seem to like that sort of stuff.”
When I worked for the daily newspaper in Lynchburg, VA — the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s home base — I had a front row seat to the process of inserting religion into American politics, especially on the Republican side. If God agrees with your political beliefs, how can anyone question them? Once again, the ante was raised.
Perhaps worst of all, this choosing of sides has led to a stunning display of intellectual laziness. If an idea seems to be on the correct side of the street, politically speaking, it removes the necessity of actually exploring it. Thus, Q’Anon followers signed off on articles of faith that were wildly illogical, and those who believed that Donald Trump was cheated out of victory last November maintained that position even though Republican state election leaders told them otherwise.
But we were talking about getting along, and allowing political and cultural issues to unnecessarily inflame us doesn’t help. In most cases, it’s also a waste of time. Perhaps we could just ask ourselves:
- Is this really something I believe strongly, or did someone else tell me I should care?
- Is it likely to affect me directly in any way?
- If so, is there anything I can do about it?
- If not, is it worth getting angry about?
- Does it really matter if someone else feels differently?
It’s important to realize, though, that America hasn’t really been split in two. It is the people holding extreme positions — or hoping to benefit from espousing them — who speak the loudest. There is still a middle ground, and the phrase “Let’s agree to disagree” hasn’t completely gone out of style.
Let’s hope it never does.
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."