How Can We Fix the Division In America?

In late March, Peggy Noonan had a wonderfully insightful piece about the current status of the division between Americans in our current political climate. If you haven’t read it, you really should.

While the entire article is well worth your time, there were a couple salient points that really stood out to me as the root of the problem.

Old America used to accept our splits as part of the price of being us—numerous, varied, ornery. Current America, with its moderating institutions (churches) going down and its dividing institutions (the internet) rising, sees our polarization not as something to be healed but a reason for being, something to get up for. There’s a finality to it, a war-to-the-death quality.

This, in a nutshell, seems to be the primary cause of so much division throughout our country, and the world. Where the church used to be seen as the moderator, the common denominator among most of the culture, it is now being pushed to the fringes and so minimized that its effect has lessened. Whether it is politicians and news media constantly berating the faithful for their beliefs, or the churches themselves desperately trying to look just like popular culture, the result is like Noonan says - the traditional moderation that could be affected by the church has diminished and, in many cases, disappeared.

As the church lost its mediating influence in society, the division, rhetoric, and “us-vs-them” mentality grew. Then, those smoldering feelings were stoked into a raging fire by splashing on the gasoline of the internet. People would be exposed to others with whom they disagree, and their anonymity online would build their courage to attack people in ways they never would in person. Additionally, we would be connected to numerous others with whom we did agree - thus creating digital lynch mobs in search of anyone who would dare cross us.

Far too often, rather than trying to calm tempers and put out the fire, many in the church would fall prey to the same mentality and stoke the fires further - while feeling great because we would be “doing it for God.” Those growing tensions and bolstered sense of “I’m right, you’re wrong” led to the next problem that Noonan rightly identified.

Nothing can be moderate or incremental, everything must be sweeping and definitive. It is all so maximalist, and bullying.

In that environment people start to think that giving an inch is giving a yard. And so they won’t budge.

This is the crux of the problem. Again, bolstered by anonymity and encouraged by being part of a group, the attacks, disagreements, and arguments were taken to new heights. It’s unacceptable to concede that someone else’s argument may have merit. Now, if it goes against what you believe, they’re wrong, they’re evil and you are fighting on the side of good. We now use a person’s disagreement of opinion as a reason to discount their humanity and verbally (or even physically) brutalize them in the name of being “right.”

I believe there is also another element at play, subconsciously for those outside the church (and even some inside). For years now, we’ve been told we’re nothing but evolved monkeys. We have no special standing on earth, we’re just evolved primates. So, not only do you remove the potential of someone feeling shame or discomfort for insulting someone to their face (by communicating online), but you also remove any sense that you need to treat the other person with respect or dignity. Why should you? They’re nothing but a monkey.

Yes, this argument is subtle and subconscious, but I think it’s valid. When you spend time discrediting any inherent value of human beings (i.e. refusing to admit they are made in the image of God), you remove any requirement to treat them any different than any other animal. So, putting a keyboard and internet connection between them and the person they are insulting certainly won’t do anything to stop them from uttering their worst thoughts - especially when there are no real consequences.

We need to return to a time when we can disagree and realize that other people have opinions, just like we do, but that those opinions don’t (necessarily) make them bad people. We need people’s hearts to be changed to see that they (and that other person on Twitter) are both made in the image of God and should be treated as such. We need to return to a time of civility and honest debate, rather than immediately jumping to referring to the other person as “literally Hitler.”

Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the direction we’re headed.