I grew up in a small, conservative town in the Midwest where people occasionally joked that a “good Democrat” was an oxymoron. When I moved to Los Angeles for college, many people I met regarded those from rural communities as uneducated and backward. Individuals in both places generally befriended those who shared their viewpoints and kept others with opposing ideas at arms’ length.
The chasm between conservatives and liberals is a well-documented phenomenon in the United States. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, among both political parties, the shares of members with very unfavorable opinions of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Additionally, most Republicans (55 percent) said they had just a few or no friends who were Democrats, while 64 percent of Democrats said they had just a few or no friends who were Republicans. The partisan divide even encompassed the communities they called home. Republicans generally favored a community with more space, even if amenities were farther away. In contrast, most Democrats preferred a community where houses were smaller and closer together but with amenities nearby.
In his book “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of America is Tearing Us Apart,” journalist Bill Bishop explored how living in communities with those who share similar viewpoints is creating an increasingly polarized nation where people often cannot relate to those who live just a few miles away. “Like-minded, homogeneous groups squelch dissent, grow more extreme in their thinking, and ignore evidence that their positions are wrong,” Mr. Bishop wrote. “As a result, we now live in a giant feedback loop, hearing our own thoughts about what’s right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear, and the neighborhoods we live in.”
When you are surrounded by people who adhere to the same ideas that you do, it’s easy to think your side has everything right and that everyone else is wrong. But being too far right or too far left can be a cause for concern, if only because the world is not a black and white (or red and blue) place. Extremity on either side is dangerous and detrimental. There should always be room for dissent, for disagreements and for differences.
I am thankful to have close friends who range from diehard conservatives to dyed-in-the-wool liberals because they have shown me that those on the right and the left aren’t caricatures or stereotypes but real flesh-and-blood people with valid experiences, diverse perspectives and wise insights to bring to the conversation. Whenever my conservative or progressive friends belittle the other side as stupid or ignorant, I can’t help but think that if they truly knew some of those people, they might actually like them — and they just might find that working together can accomplish much more than warring against each other.
It’s easy to hate others when they are the faceless enemy, but it’s much more difficult when you love someone who is firmly planted on a side you don’t agree with. Loving them may not change your position, but it serves as a reminder that tolerance and empathy and openness are essential ingredients in any nation.
We must learn how to disagree in a healthy and civil manner, and how to listen rather than proselytize. Lasting and beneficial solutions can only be found when both sides work together — and that can only happen if they first respect each other. If there’s one thing I believe with all my heart, it’s this: Empathy and respect are the way forward.
Rebekah Bell is a writer based in Los Angeles; her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.