This brings me to relational differences that I’ve observed among educated and uneducated individuals. I’ve seen countless instances where working-class parents have sent their offspring to college with the desperate goal of getting an education, only to be appalled by the results. They wanted their children to get an education but did not expect it to change them in such a way that they would no longer be able to relate to them as one of us. And yet, if education did not change them in some significant way, one has to ask why it would have been worthwhile.
We have a multitude of political lines of demarcation separating us into respective social groups in America, but nothing is more pronounced than the knowledge gap. I’m not talking about formal education per se here, but the thoughtful pursuit of the humanities by people whose desire to know and to learn takes them far beyond their restricted worldview. Knowledge is what counts—not where it is obtained. Educated people and uneducated people do not have enough in common to carry on a viable conversation, let alone agree politically about anything of importance, simply because the way they view the world is so dramatically different.
This contrast is most easily observable in what we call the heartland: in middle, rural America. Although this is clearly a politically incorrect observation, I will argue that people with limited education are irrefutably more fearful of change and uncertainty than those who are liberally educated, period. In Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas profile small towns where there exists a tradition of encouraging the most promising high school students to go on to college and find careers in big city metropolises. They identify these young people as achievers, others who stay put as stayers, those who leave for economic reasons or from boredom as seekers, and those who come back after a time as returners. It stands to reason that when it’s an established practice to purposely urge the best and brightest to leave their home communities, eventually there have to be consequences. Among populations made up primarily of less educated and less adventurous people—people who are fearful of change and uncertainty, is it difficult to imagine that influencing these individuals with political scare tactics would be an easy thing to do? And if rural America is bombarded by right-wing radio hosts who push emotional hot buttons daily while making listeners fearful about issues that they clearly do not understand, is it hard to imagine the result being the town hall meetings of boisterous citizens fearful of socialized medicine that we witnessed in the fall of 2009?
In his book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, science writer Michael Specter argues that denialism occurs when we turn away from reality. Specter says this is not a left-versus-right issue, but has more to do with getting a grip on a kind of reality that we can understand. Indeed, the kind we can relate to. I agree. But I believe there is something more at play here than denialism. This realm cuts to the quick of the issue of misrelating, although it clearly is something describable as a turning away. It represents the depths of human anxiety, where our reasoning capability is easily overridden and flooded with sentiment. This gap is the epitome of disingenuousness because it’s where our cultural biases fester and our sense of loyalty to our own kind is strengthened. The result can be a caldron of misspent emotions and inarticulate feelings, where angst and apprehension intensify with enough force to redirect contrary facts and keep them at bay.
One can’t dwell in this emotionally unstable abyss for too long without wanting to retaliate in order to rid oneself of the kind of otherness that appears to represent a primordial threat to one’s very existence. Or so it seems to our Stone Age hard-wiring. As a consequence, our engagement with those we regard as others can easily become overly emotional. Thus, we misrelate, upping the ante of our discontent as we alienate the other and increase our loyalty to our own group in the process. In this manner, disingenuous dialog can become ritualistic and, because of the accompanying endorphin rush, addictive. If we are not very careful, it can negatively shape our lives by tilting us toward despair and predisposing us to be forever fearful of change and uncertainty as well as those whose very existence brings these subjects to mind.
We are an inherently scareable species. It is a sad irony that humans have achieved the technological acumen to simulate magic and yet we are still plagued with an ancient psychological default tendency for prejudice that is easily aroused when we become anxious and is therefore easily put to use by those who know the political formula. Members of Germany’s Third Reich used to joke among themselves about how easy it was to scare people into doing practically anything, seemingly of their own free will.
Most of us who are fortunate enough to live and prosper in a developed nation owe our good fortune to the way things are. That our nation could and should be better than it is, and more just, rests with our responsibility as citizens. Indeed, if we adhere to founding principals, and if a form of our government becomes destructive, it is both our right and responsibility to abolish it. Injustice and the contempt that makes it possible is most often the result of the greed of special-interest groups. The lobbied purchase of politicians is antithetical to democracy and is thus a practice thoughtful citizens should eliminate. Until we get big money out of campaign politics, the interests of ordinary citizens will continue to lose ground to the profit motives of corporations, period.
Justice in a democracy is about accountability, and so is citizenship. This is why disingenuous dialog is harmful. As long as we engage in tit-for-tat nonsense, the worse things get. Exchanging Internet emails with like-minded citizens about the inanities of our political opposition may momentarily make us feel superior, but it does not serve our better interests; it accomplishes nothing except to widen the divide and keep us from resolving serious problems with serious solutions.
We must constantly remain aware that reasoning is much harder to do than relating, and that if we are not very careful, we will relate emotionally by default through an archaic coping system without realizing that’s what we are doing. This fearful response may have served us well on the prehistoric plains of the Savannah, but it is a threat to contemporary civilization in a world so diverse that we can never fully comprehend its complexity. Reasoning with those with whom we disagree politically by striving for the better argument, as democracy requires, is possible, but it’s exceptionally hard work. It calls for an extraordinarily hypervigilant commitment on the part of participants, who have to care more about solving problems than about who is right or wrong. In other words, it requires Citizens with a capital C.
So let’s try to navigate this terrain using a more reasonable approach for a moment, and see if this discussion begins to make better sense. Surely liberals whose lives have been saved by modern miracle drugs don’t think all big pharmaceutical companies are bastions of pure evil. And presumably those who drive cars and fly frequently in aircraft don’t think that oil companies are totally without merit. At the same time, can’t anyone with a modicum of reason suppose that if the average automobile emits over five metric tons of carbon dioxide and other trace chemicals a year, the aggregate number of vehicles on the planet must have some measurable effect on the environment?
Surely conservatives who rail against government inefficiency don’t think that everyone in the government is incompetent. To my mind, the very notion of competence brings forth the mental image of a postal clerk named Michael in my hometown, whose professional demeanor, job knowledge, enthusiasm, and cordial sense of humor are traits the folks waiting in line marvel at.
Our armed services are products of government, and even though they are the most socialistic aspect of our society, most of us seem to think they do an outstanding job. How can the citizens in a country they imagine to be the envy of the world, precisely because it was founded upon the notion that “we the people” are the government, hate the very thing that makes their lives possible?
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.