The short answer is a lot. Before elaborating, let us backtrack.
Cassandra: In his effort to woo Cassandra of Troy, the Greek God Apollo gave her a gift – the ability to foresee the future. But after Cassandra rejected him, Apollo was in a bind. Unable to revoke the power that he had bestowed, Apollo amended his offering by redefining the outcome. While Cassandra could still see the future, nobody believed what she said—even when it involved life and death situations (e.g., Troy’s destruction). Blessed with a gift but cursed by its application, Cassandra’s prophesies were ignored.
Tower of Babel: This origin myth explains why humans do not communicate using a single language as, according to legend, they once did. According to Genesis, people migrated to a city in Mesopotamia. Once there, they decided to construct a high tower that would reach to the sky. If they succeeded, the story goes, people believed they could do anything. But the Lord found their audacity unbecoming and levied a punishment—communicative chaos. Without the ability to communicate fluently, people stopped working on the tower and only a few remained in the city. The rest “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
Historical and Modern Relevance
In June 1858, Abraham Lincoln warned about America’s growing political divide in his famous “House Divided” speech. Lincoln spoke critically about the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott Decision. In that ruling, the Court judged that Scott and his spouse would live as enslaved persons in a free state. “Under the operation of that policy,” Lincoln said, “agitation has not ceased, and it has been constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. A house divided against itself cannot stand.” (italics added)
Modern Cassandras, just like Lincoln, are informed, thoughtful, and prescient—three reasons we turn to them for perspective and understanding. But time and time again, as Mark A. Lewis explains, their warnings go unheeded. “Alarms fall on deaf ears of an audience inured to denial,” Lewis wrote recently. “No one seeks out a misfortune teller (emphasis added). We want to picture the Rolls-Royce but not the car crash.”
Jonathan Haidt, whom I consider a Modern Casandra, commented recently about today’s political divide. In his Why the Last 10 Years Have Been Uniquely Stupid, Haidt writes: “The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what has happened to America. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.” Haidt calls it The Rise of the Modern Tower, and he believes that it is symptomatic of something broader: what he calls the fragmentation of everything.
The implications for America are enormous—just as they were in Lincoln’s time—because we have become “a house divided” once again.
Making headway on otherwise intractable public problems requires being able to communicate effectively and find common ground. But rather than identify things on which we can agree and then move forward together, we focus on disagreements and differences that keep us apart. It is not only what we do but it is also how we do it. With confrontational and bombast rhetoric, pugilistic behavior characterizes America’s public square. Every inch of political terrain is fought for in the quest for supremacy. “To the victor belongs the spoils”—a 19th Century adage from Andrew Jackson’s time—has found renewed vitality in 21st Century America.
While there has always been a certain amount of angst expressed by one group of people toward another, that level has reached new heights. With sociopolitical identities on steroids, the overarching proposition is us versus them, and heaven help those who seek to bridge the political divide. Fidelity to a partisan political stance is expected, and those who stray—let us call them boundary-spanners—get marginalized, even ostracized. But those punishments are misplaced. When we are always right and above reproach, and they are always wrong and detestable, we forfeit the all-important capacity to look at ourselves critically.
What I have just described is too important to simply point out and decry. We need to counter it aggressively. Here are five ways.
1. Refrain personally from engaging in what I call “homer-ism,” that is, constantly extolling the home team and pointing out others’ shortcomings and flaws.
2. Speak up when experiencing that behavior in social situations, especially when it happens in organizations with which you are affiliated. Keep “homer-ism” from becoming an enculturated trait.
3. Become a boundary-spanner yourself, modeling that behavior in your own work, including shining the light of critique on your groups and affiliations.
4. Encourage, enable, and endorse others who bring people together for common cause.
5. Be a listening ear and defender. Boundary-spanners need support from colleagues, especially when they come under fire.
Cannibalized Through Internecine War
If enough of us engage in one or more of those behaviors, we might save America from itself. Otherwise, self-inflicted disaster may strike, just as it did during Lincoln’s time. The belief that it cannot happen again only fuels the likelihood that it could, especially when there are warning signs that it might.
Why do we fail to heed warnings? Rosie Ninesling explains it this way: Even when we know something is not right, “we put off dealing with our problems because confrontation solidifies the reality of the issue.” (italics from the original) Ninesling likens it to the check-engine light that goes on every time we start our car, long before the engine fails. We know something is wrong, but we are unlikely to act. We have dodged disaster many times before, so why do anything now? Besides, what is the worst thing that could happen?
It is because terrible things can happen. In Jo Bloom’s novel Ridley Road, Soly Malinovsky tells his young niece what it was like for Jews in Nazi Germany before all hell broke out. “Everything seemed absolutely fine until the moment it wasn’t,” Malinovsky tells her. (pause) “Then, it was just too late.”
What happens when inaction becomes enculturated in society, as it has in ours today? Chris Hedges offers clues in his hard-hitting book, The Empire of Illusion. Hedges believes that it “robs us of the intellectual and linguistic tools to separate illusion from truth.” The consequences are tragic because “reality is complicated, and we become incapable or unwilling to manage its confusion.”
Besides, when enough people say a mountain is being made from a molehill, we are likely to dismiss both the message and the messenger, including “social critics, iconoclasts, dissidents, and individualists,” who, as Hedges asserts, “fail to surrender to the herd.”
Haidt is right: it is “uniquely stupid.” And it may cost us America.