A father sent his four sons out to learn about the world, asking them to journey to a far away land and report about an ancient pear tree. He sent one son in winter, one in spring, one in summer, and one in fall. After the year had passed, the sons gathered together to report what they found. The son sent in winter declared the tree ugly and barren. The son sent in spring thought it full of promise and color. The son sent in summer proclaimed the tree laden with fragrant blossom. The son sent in fall announced it heavy with fruit, the epitome of fulfillment.
The father explained that they were all right, because they had only seen the tree in one season of its life. He explained that we should never judge a tree, or a human being, based on one single aspect. The essence of their being is only revealed over time and through many complicated layers.
I was reminded of this allegory recently when a close friend told me that she had unfollowed every “friend” on social media who claimed affiliation with the “wrong” presidential candidate.
Who was the wrong candidate? Well, the “other guy” of course.
I have my own guy too. We all do. But I’m not going to debate last night’s debate with you and here’s why. Everyone has already made up their minds and nothing I say will change yours.
Most people form too-quick opinions and are quick to share those hastily-formed ideas online, ideas which will mostly be read by those who already share those opinions. It’s confirmation bias in action, where our existing beliefs and emotions lead us to filter and interpret information through our limited, highly curated personal lens. We see what we hope or fear to see rather than what is actually there.
Social media is confirmation bias on steroids. Every time we like the posts that support our worldview and unfollow the people who oppose our worldview, the more our worldview narrows. We assume we are thinking for ourselves, but we are really giving our power to the social media algorithm. It tells us who to hate and who to love, what is banned and what is allowed, what is wrong and what is right. We adopt these ideas as inalienable truths. Then we yell behind our keyboard, talk at each other instead of to each other, try to cajole or shame others into seeing our point of view. We are living in an online echo chamber that is tearing us apart.
If we are to heal this divisiveness, it starts by acknowledging that people are not merely one-dimensional caricatures defined by their party affiliation. It’s like seeing a tree in one season only. We all want what (we believe) is best for our family, though we disagree on the policies that push us in that direction. It might feel inconvenient, but love can live in the hearts of those on the opposite side of the political fence.
Have you ever seen that photo of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton taken at the President’s Cup golf tournament? They have their arms around each other and sincere joy on their faces. Consider how far apart these three men were on policy. But there is a camaraderie that cannot be faked. While they aren’t best friends, there is respect here, unity here, kindness here, honor here. Their larger love for our country transcends their smaller differences.
Or consider the fact that former Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg were dear friends outside the courtroom, despite being on polar opposite sides politically. Their arguments were often characterized as “spirited but respectful.” While they rarely agreed in session, they often attended the opera and celebrated New Year’s Eve together. Their ideological differences did not dissuade their authentic respect and fondness for each other.
What I’m saying is this. I have no trouble erasing you from my feed if your posts are hateful, misogynistic, homophobic, or racist. But, as long as you are respectful and compassionate, I will still like you, even if you like “the other guy.” That this feels like a radical statement says a lot about where we are as a society right now.
Voting is our sacred responsibility. We should take it seriously, but we shouldn’t let it take over our lives. Regardless of the outcome next month, I vow to remember each of you is a human being and not just an elephant or donkey.