A study conducted by the USC Brain and Creativity Institute and Project Reason showed that human identity and emotion are directly tied to individuals’ political beliefs. When participants were presented with counterarguments to political views they felt especially strongly about, the insular cortex, the part of the brain that processes feelings, was particularly active.
In an increasingly divisive political climate, it is important to think about how to have productive conversations with those with conflicting beliefs. The internet has become a breeding ground for hateful conversations and insults flung back and forth by people who are on different sides of the political spectrum, often to the detriment of marginalized Americans in particular. This prevents any productive conversation and reinforces stereotypes about liberals and conservatives. It also reflects the larger issues that a two-party system presents, especially at a national government level, within the different branches of government. It has become simply impossible for an issue to be non-political. Every event, message and response is lined with political agenda and rhetoric present to further a specific side’s political agenda.
At the Women’s March in Los Angeles on Saturday, several signs read something along the lines of “Make America Kind Again.” Most of the American public recognizes the animosity and malice that has overtaken political agendas, but cannot find a way to restore civility without threatening their own beliefs and identity. As the study shows, emotions and identity are essential facets of people’s political beliefs. For that reason, an attack on their beliefs translates to an attack on them. Empathy is the only tool that can be used to bridge the gaps that seem to be widening each day.
Messages circulating the internet after the election present oversimplified narratives along the lines of “Dave voted for Trump, Jane voted for Hillary. Dave and Jane can still be friends.” In this election, more than ever before, American citizens felt that one political candidate invalidated their existence. Because of the unique nature of this election cycle, controversial statements about politicians’ beliefs felt like a betrayal and personal attack, from both candidates. This election, for many, was more personal than ever before, which accounts for the increased lack of empathy that citizens on both sides of the political spectrum displayed toward each other due to feelings of rage, isolation and vulnerability.
Former President Barack Obama has previously suggested, “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try talking with one of them in real life,” which is solid advice in theory, but could be ineffective in reality if individuals remain set on accepting only what reinforces their prior beliefs and fundamentally misunderstand the situations and experiences of Americans who are different from them.
Empathy and unity must be found first in our political system, before politicians can expect citizens to adopt it individually. Healthcare must not be an issue of “Obama vs. Republicans” but one of ensuring millions of uninsured Americans are able to access healthcare. Immigration reform must be tackled with humanity and constructive conversations, not stark political beliefs based solely on party. Issues must become less “us versus them.”
Citizens must understand that political views cannot be easily separated from self-identity. When millennials are criticized for being overly emotional and supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton are told to “get over it,” this translates to a personal attack, just as the reverse would have been true, had the election produced a different result. Having conversations alone cannot change the political climate that this election has created. A fundamental lack of empathy has been produced by the two-party system — something that individual citizens are not entirely to blame for. When people on different sides of the political spectrum have fundamentally different understandings of the truth, emotions undoubtedly factor into politics, as this study has made clear.
There is no simple solution. This presidency and the election cycles that follow, we must pressure our elected officials to put in the effort to empathize with even the Americans who opposed them. When those in power begin to at least attempt to see eye to eye with one another, separating party attachments from political actions and discussions, then they can expect citizens to do the same. Once politicians demonstrate empathy for all their citizens, not just those on their side, the divisions in our country can begin to dissolve.