In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Matt Bai writes that Americans in crisis “have a certain blood lust.” When the chips are down, Bai opines, “we can be counted on to find someone who personifies the threat and whose downfall, we imagine, will cause the immediate peril to pass.”
Bai is right. When the home team is losing by a double-digit margin halfway through the game, the crowd begins pointing fingers. It must be that new untested quarterback or the out-of-touch coach or a meddlesome referee. Somebody screwed up. Someone is to blame.
We’re currently seeing this unfold at the national level, with battles between the president and the press, between journalists and other journalists, between business owners and governors. While many of these battles aren’t new, they’ve all been characterized by particular vitriol lately.
This is happening on the personal level, too. Many average Americans—friends, family members, coworkers, neighbors and old high school chums—are all becoming happy players in the blame game.
And it’s helping no one.
The easiest place to find evidence of this is on Facebook, Twitter and the other digital havens we retreat to in times of outrage and boredom.
Countless articles have been written about the horrors of social media: on how it inflames tribalism; can amplify bigotry, hatred and ignorance; and can negatively impact children. But, according to the Pew Research Center, about 70% of US adults still use Facebook, and roughly 40% of them get their news from there. With so many people logging on, we have an obligation to truth and to each other. If Facebook were a physical space, seven out of ten American adults would gather there regularly and it would be plagued by arguments, insults and fist-fights between Democrats and Republicans, between socialists and libertarians, between people who like pineapple on their pizza and those who don’t.
My Facebook friends include older Midwestern family members, who tend to skew populist right, and younger friends and coworkers, who often skew intersectional left. So, as you can probably imagine, my social media feeds have lately devolved into passive aggressive sniping at best and all-out warfare at worst.
Family members—good, well-intentioned people—call CNN the “Communist News Network” and view left-wing newscasters as evil. While “FOR EVERY HEART REACT THIS POST GETS, ONE NAZI PROTESTER FROM THAT MESS IN LANSING WILL GET THE RONA,” screams an ordinarily sweet, sensitive left-wing friend I’ve known for over a decade.
Again and again, I find myself reading inflammatory posts written or shared by good people. Are they so blinded by ideology that they can’t recognize the bile they’re spewing? Or are they willing participants?
Since our culture not only amplifies but celebrates tribalism, I can’t blame them entirely. But it’s disappointing to see kindhearted, intelligent people fall prey to the idiocy of our times. A lot of the ideas swirling around on social media lack even a shred of charity, understanding or intellectual humility. Whataboutism is paramount. Instead of building bridges with ideological opponents, we delight in tearing them down—often at the expense of actually solving problems.
Those on the right: isn’t it possible that liberals aren’t maliciously trying to strip you of your rights and livelihoods? What if they just genuinely want people to be as safe and healthy as possible? Those on the left: can’t conservatives be worried about earning enough money for themselves and their families? Isn’t it important to question the government and peacefully protest the forfeiture of personal liberties?
So how can we avoid groupthink?
First, understand the importance of bipartisanship. Learn more about groups such as Better Angels and Heterodox Academy. Get your news from a variety of sources, especially those that challenge your own biases. Those on the left should try National Review and those on the right the Atlantic.
Second, seek healing over division and strive to be humane, not derisive. This can be difficult, especially for the most passionate among us, but practice makes perfect. Read Amy Chua’s Political Tribes, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay’s How to Have Impossible Conversations. These books will provide insight into the other side and help you grapple with different mindsets and philosophies.
Third and most importantly: be helpful and kind. Apply the principle of charity whenever possible, which means interpreting the words of others as rationally as you can, and attributing good motives to them. The folks across the aisle are not necessarily your enemies: “we need to be able to use their ideas to test, strengthen, and build on our own,” as Pamela Paresky has pointed out.
Whether we want to admit it or not, we need each other right now—not just so that we can find solutions, but for support and sanity. If we keep playing the blame game, everyone might lose.