I was dismayed by the recent Pew survey on increased polarization in American society, and not just in politics. This has been a trend line a long time in coming, with converging causation from Congressional redistricting to Crossfire. But when both sides view the other as the greatest threat to the American Experiment, how can a nation develop a shared vision for its future?
In politics, there is no permission—only penalty—to work with “the other side.” Compromise is a four-letter word. Civility is out the window, conflict is the rage in more ways than one.
How does a society develop E Pluribus Unum? In part, by walking in another’s shoes. By sharing fences, classrooms and battlefields. By joining the Rotary, the Knights or the Girl Scouts. We learned about our neighbor and the challenges he faced because we knew our neighbor and faced his challenges together. We developed empathy.
The Pew study observed that we are choosing to live apart; to remove ourselves from contact with people that are different than us, who think differently than us. Charles Murray observed a similar trend in his book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, that different socio-economic communities are no longer connected by sidewalks, but instead separated by gated communities. We don’t shop in the same stores. We don’t worship in the same churches. A few live in “super zips” and others live in Fishtown and never the twain shall meet.
Scottish writer Andrew Fletcher is often quoted on this very notion (which is even more profound in context): “I said I knew a very wise man so much of Sir Christopher’s sentiment, that he believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation, and we find that most of the ancient legislators thought that they could not well reform the manners of any city without the help of a lyric, and sometimes of a dramatic poet.”
I believe that the one of the few shared experiences we still have is popular culture. Sure, there are niche genres, and certainly we can have a tribal mentality regarding the music or films we enjoy and promote, but short of physically placing myself in the same circumstances, how better can I develop empathy for the challenges of African-Americans than by watching Twelve Years a Slave, The Butler or Walden Media’s television special, The Watsons go to Birmingham.
Recent writings have emphasized this point in saying that developments in neuroscience that have shown that people with different beliefs travel the same neurological pathway as they consume the same story. They share experience. they build understanding. They develop empathy. This is not just emotional ephemera, this is real rewiring. We may think differently, but pop culture allows us to share a story.
Perhaps the only way in which we can find common ground in today’s polarized society and develop a shared identity is through compelling culture and story telling. Maybe art is the only way we can save America.