Unfortunately, America’s greatest strength is, at times, a debilitating weakness. The diversity from which we derive so much creativity and innovation also yields a surplus of contempt for a vast range of differences that can’t be reconciled without a great deal of deliberative effort or a common cause like the coming together during 9/11 or all-out world war. It seems a hard-wired aspect of our nature that a tipping point exists for the degree of difference that we can accept without becoming irrational. The greater the differences appear between ourselves and those we view as others, the more we seem to become obsessed with notions of equity and the more fearful we are of not getting our fair share of whatever largesse is at hand. One has only to watch a pride of lions feed on a small meal to appreciate how the world of nature predisposes the living to stay alive.
There should, however, be no mystery about where most of the fearful and biased contempt we experience in America originates. It’s born of political orchestration based upon many years of practiced manipulation and the use of tried and true tactics that work nearly every time because most of us simply don’t get it. Washington lobbyists have practically made a science of tweaking with our emotions, and we find it hard to accept that we are so easily fooled by appeals to our worst instincts. The exploitation stems from the greed of powerful interest groups and the lobbyists they hire to create a diversion. Distraction works like a charm, especially on uneducated people—people unaware of the duties and responsibilities required of citizens to make a democracy work, people who don’t recognize the need to get involved and learn about issues instead of standing on the sidelines and parroting the government-is-evil mantra encouraged and egged on by the beneficiaries of the distraction.
No doubt Frank Luntz coined the term death tax to help his wealthy GOP patrons defeat legislation that would affect the party in general. His motive was not to benefit the Paris Hiltons of the world, nor was it based on a firm belief that it was the right thing to do. When we choose sides, the money to win an election obscures many of the issues at hand. Thus, if greed and contempt can keep participants misrelating, then no one seems to notice that engaging in disingenuous dialog is the best kind of diversion. The conversation looks and feels like democracy, even though it accomplishes little but further alienation. Luntz is a campaign consultant and a living, breathing example that cash trumps both conscience and democracy. We should ask those who equate money with free speech whether they really believe that the rich should simply rule by decree. Such a solution would save a lot of time and effort by eliminating the need to raise campaign money or to hold elections.
When the subject is an ideological issue, such as abortion, affirmative action, civil rights, feminism, homosexual marriage, healthcare, global warming, capitalism, socialism, organic food, virus immunization, or vegetarianism, millions of people are unable to discuss it rationally because the mere mention of it causes them to become overly defensive. Consciously or subconsciously they deflect incoming data and tune out anything and everything that they would prefer not to hear. Because our tendency for misrelating instead of reasoning is so pervasive, more often than not, the congressional action we get concerning the above subjects is not based on the better argument, or the moral high ground, but instead upon whose lobbyists can best orchestrate disdain or distraction and therefore stifle any opportunity for settling these issues rationally and equitably. The resulting so-called bipartisan legislation is often shameful deal making that has nothing whatsoever to do with the issue being addressed. To call this process democratic compromise may be technically correct, but it is also to misperceive the rational dynamics of democracy based upon achieving the better argument and thus the most appropriate solution. It amounts to overlooking the overt manipulation at hand and the fact that reason has been overridden with deceptive emotional prodding.
Of course, an overly emotional and irrational discourse among our legislators and the general public is nothing new, and to imagine that we were once a nation reliant on nothing but objective reason would be to totally misunderstand our heritage. American history is rife with raging emotional vitriol by politicians at every level of government, who have sometimes resorted to physical altercation. But to continue to misrelate and to suffer egregious manipulation by moneyed interests, knowing what we know today about the psychology of how we interact with others, is equivalent to having physicians bleed patients, regardless of the nature of their illness, just as they did for decades before anyone knew any better.
Whether we call it disingenuous dialog, denialism, childishness, or misrelating, is less important than stopping this behavior by doing our homework as citizens. We need more dialog between opposing points of view, not less, but it needs to be civil, constructive and purposeful. We must recognize that a government based upon reason requires reasonable people and that it is the responsibility of each of us as a citizen to see that our own level of understanding and comprehension is up to the task of attaining, sustaining, and protecting democracy. With effort, our default biases can be parked in neutral, our hot buttons can be deactivated, and, if we are wise, we can be more assertive and thoughtful than those who would push them. Serious debate in search of the better argument is a noble enterprise and one we should resurrect as if the future depends on it.
Charles Hayes is the author of September University, a call to action to Americans past middle age. Hayes believes that wisdom evolves from real life experience. Those who acquire it “have an obligation to do their best to pass it on,” he says. “Our children’s future still depends on the experiential wisdom of aging citizens.”September University contains a remarkable suite of reasons to discover new meaning and purpose in the last chapters of life.