A Nation of Two Solitudes: Speaking with Our Adversariesby Saul Levine, M.D., Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry at UCSD November 27, 2018
I tend to be an optimist, usually retaining hope that things will turn out for the best. But I have despaired of late that…
We are becoming a nation of “Two Solitudes,”* each with widely different experiences in living, thinking, perceiving and believing.
There is palpable anxiety “in the air,” related to an increasingly prevalent atmosphere of fear, anger and hatred.
I fear that we have reached a point when civilized conversation between people has become difficult or even impossible whenever certain topics are brought up. The nature of the subject matter can vary, but bitter conflict and feelings can ensue even between family members and among friends.
So much so that topics are avoided, dinners or meetings cancelled, guests conspicuously not invited, all to avoid unseemly confrontations. Sound familiar?
The varied topics to be avoided can include taxes or guns, abortion or gender differences, immigration or race, drugs or health care, religion or other controversial subjects. Whenever viewed through skewed personal political prisms, they’re no longer grist for the mill of civil discussion. Instead, they become inflammatory “fighting words;” Respect and courtesy are cast aside, and voluble anger and animus prevail.
We have become so polarized in our views of our worlds, that we have vastly different perceptions of the exact same experiences (reminiscent of the classic Kurosawa film Rashomon). We are even conflicted about what is (in fact) a fact, versus what is made up or mendacious.
To be clear, I am not here referring to them: I mean us, you and me both. We would rather not speak with those of our fellow citizens whom we decry as duplicitous, “dead wrong” or dangerous, and they harbor those exact same views about us.
We are thus left with an intractable, sad and dangerous impasse.
Some suggest that we have to make concerted efforts to communicate, to “reach across the table,” to our adversaries. That we must “walk in their boots” in order to understand “where they’re coming from,” so that we can empathize with our political opponents. Only then will we achieve amicable progress and calm the roiling social and political arenas.
Conversely, others say, “It’s too late” for respectful discussions or bonhomie. Opposing factions are too entrenched in rigid mindsets, intransigent in dogmas and hatred, to achieve understanding or amity. In the current climate of contempt, civil discussion is inherently provocative and futile at best, and dangerous at worst.
We are living in times of psychological and political separation and personal and social unrest. If we refuse to listen to different perspectives or cannot speak honestly with our adversaries, we are politically paralyzed and perhaps worse, we are emotionally and cognitively frozen.
By definition, we are stuck.
This is not merely theoretical musing: It encompasses the very ways we wish to live our lives and the future of our society.
Personally, I feel this very impasse within myself. Do I avoid the fray? Shall I remain silent? Should I seek vigorous debate? Should I become politically active? Must I become militant?
To increase militancy would accentuate our differences and increase conflict, which could invite outrage and even incur violence.
To throw up our hands in resignation or disgust, would be to turn the country over to the darker sides of human nature: Fear, anger and hate would prevail, and we could descend into an authoritarian regime marked by repression and regression, as this world has seen before.
To reach “across the table” (or the aisle!) sounds wonderful, but we know that this would be very challenging: we would surely invite disagreement and debate, conflict and anger. But we would also increase at least the possibilities of understanding and empathy, cooperation and compromise.
I tried this recently with someone I’ve known for years at the opposite side of the political spectrum and we were both enhanced and ennobled.
(In the current acrimonious climate, I am not suggesting that we reach out to zealous or feral racists, anti-Semites, nativists, fascists or other violent haters).
If progressive and liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the late, doctrinaire conservative Justice Antonin Scalia could disagree so clearly, so articulately and so assertively, and yet still remain mutually respectful colleagues and even friends, there is hope for all of us.
We have little rational choice at this juncture but to appeal to our better angels, the benevolent parts of humanity. We can, indeed we must, listen and learn from our adversaries about their personal lives; we need to try our best to understand those with whom we differ: we must, peaceably and respectfully, listen and learn; we should discuss, debate and try to explain and persuade; and we have to be open to flexibility, compromise and cooperation, even camaraderie.
The alternative is too frightening to contemplate.
*Hugh MacLennan wrote “Two Solitudes” in 1945 about the English-French divide in Quebec, but this title is remarkably in tune with other political and personal divisions.