Living apart, together
We live in our own self-imposed exile. The existence of other ways of looking at things shocks us, outrages us, drives us to action — on the streets, in the voting booths and on social media. We don’t know “how the other half lives,” and for good reason — the other side often holds views we find repugnant and unworthy of our understanding. Just look at the public’s reception of any given Trump tweet.
New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks understands this.
“Day by day Trump is turning us into a nation of different planets,” Brooks wrote in one column. “Every planet feels more righteous about itself and is more isolated from and offended by the other planets.”
His analysis appears to be true, but Brooks, a columnist rather than a researcher, is unable to deeply analyze and depict the roots of this polarized malaise in his writings. Fortunately, bodies of social science research and studies on political polarization illuminate the trends toward division afflicting us at the individual and national levels.
On one level, many scholars have argued that in today’s America, basic social bonds are irreparably broken. Look at their book titles alone — political analyst Yuval Levin portrays The Fractured Republic, in which social trust is at all-time lows, political scientist Robert Putnam says we’re Bowling Alone instead of with our friends and neighbors and author Charles Murray depicts a society Coming Apart at the seams. So the argument goes, these rifts create a disillusionment that feeds political radicalism, social stratification and myriad other ills.
But there’s another story — one more morally complex and therefore harder to accept. This is the story, partly illustrated by Brooks’s “different planets” metaphor, in which our current divisions are caused not only by malign forces, but also by our own passions, our own friendships and our own loves. By pursuing community with those we trust most, we foster division with those different from us on every level, but most especially in politics.
Public intellectual Marc Dunkelman depicts this paradox in his 2011 essay, “The Transformation of American Community.” He argues that for most of the 20th century, Americans had three “rings” of community around them — the first, their intimate family; the second, their neighbors and coworkers they shared little in common with; and the third, their single-issue colleagues in particular interests and professional aspects of life. The inner two circles were strong, and the outer third, while important, never dominated.
In the Trump era, we have an entirely different American concept of community. Among some classes in American society, such as those depicted in Murray’s and Putnam’s works, the middle and inner rings of community and family are broken; but in the upper classes, the family circle is tighter than ever before. Meanwhile, due to a variety of trends — changes in the working environment, connections between people of similar interests facilitated by social media, geographic sorting of people into culturally homogenous neighborhoods — the outer ring of groups based on shared passion is also stronger than ever before.
In a sense, community has become less geographical and more centered around our passions, our loves and our deepest identities. We are free to associate more often with those we feel the strongest connections to, whether they’re our close family and intimate friends, or our professional and political counterparts a continent or an ocean away.
But there’s a cost to this new kind of community. Close, identity-based communities result in individuals mostly experiencing their own homogenous groups, so division exists both physically and socially — even virtually. According to Pew’s report entitled “Political Polarization in the American Public,” Americans increasingly prefer to live in neighborhoods where their values are not only respected, but also shared and realized. Seventy-six percent of liberals polled thought it was important to live in communities with ethnic diversity; 57 percent of conservatives polled believed in the importance of living in highly religious neighborhoods (and as Pew’s 2014 report “Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology” points out, ethnic diversity is generally an indicator of social liberalism, while deep religious faith is typically a characteristic of conservative communities). Pew also claims that more Republicans tend to live in Republican-dominated neighborhoods, and that Democrats tend to live among fellow Democrats.
Ideological homogenization applies to the first ring, as well. Pew’s Political Polarization report notes that two-thirds of strong conservatives and half of strong liberals confess to having mostly conservative or mostly liberal friends, respectively. And while conservatives are more likely to eschew talking about politics with liberals than vice-versa, more liberals than conservatives polled have reported ending friendships over political disagreements. The numbers would suggest that the desire to be with one’s own is very real, and can at least sometimes have negative effects.
This is the kind of world in which the “fake news” phenomenon can flourish. Recent controversies over election hacking have brought fake news to the forefront, but less commonly reported is that, as Pew reports, 47 percent of conservatives see primarily political opinions they agree with on social media, as do 32 percent of liberals. In other words, the politically active among us self-curate the information we consume already, on our own. We live in our own partisan echo chambers, partly due to Facebook algorithms and possible Russian nefariousness, but far more importantly because our Facebook friends — our friends — are more likely to be people we agree with on political issues.
As Dunkelman argues, there is a very real social and political cost to this new social situation. When we are used to agreeing with our friends and colleagues on most great issues — or rather, having them agree with us — we lose certain traits that make for more harmonious political life.
Dunkelman argues that when neighbors voted for different parties and had jobs on different levels of the food chain, they learned to live with each other’s differences.
“Americans with different points of view were perpetually forced to confront one another face to face,” he writes.
And there was a virtuous side-effect: “But this same push and pull, jockeying for power, and demand for compromise necessitated constant collaboration, and in the end fertilized American dynamism.”
Sure, it might be uncomfortable to interact with people who disagree with you. But in the end, that sort of discomfort, competition and compromise make for, as Dunkelman argues, a healthier and humbler civic culture.
Is it right to only have friends who agree with you, or is it right to have intellectually diverse friend groups? The answer to this question probably lies in one’s ultimate values and goals.
If the goal is to stand up for what is right at all costs, to fight for truth and justice no matter what, to be comfortable in one’s righteousness and to fundamentally transform the world, perhaps it is perfectly alright to have similarly-minded friends.
But is the goal is to live as a citizen in a reasonably benign community, to work collaboratively with diverse groups of people, to understand the diversity of the human experience and to humbly accept the fallibility and limitedness of one’s own rationality and righteousness, then the answer is the opposite. In that case, there are moral reasons to cultivate relationships with people of diverse intellectual backgrounds, whose conclusions might be troubling and even offensive. America in 2017 is full of friendships on either side of the aisle, and fewer across it; without rejecting the friendships on either side, perhaps it would be helpful for more Americans to bridge the gap.
On campus, that starts at the lowest, simplest level — meeting people across the aisle at political events and in political clubs; understanding, when you argue or advocate for certain positions, that those with opposite views aren’t necessarily the enemy; and being open to cultivating friendships with people who might be wrong about most things. These are all hard to do — but they are rewarding nonetheless.