There’s a kind of conversational phenomenon I find myself encountering a lot lately. Maybe you’re feeling it, too. I call it the veer. It works like this: You’re having an exchange with your neighbor, or with a friend, or maybe a colleague from work. You’re talking about this and that — your homes, families, jobs, the Raiders, the weather — and all of a sudden, the conversation changes. Maybe not all of a sudden, maybe over the course of a few moments, a few comments. But when it happens, it’s unmistakable. Suddenly there’s a political energy in the conversation. Maybe it’s somebody talking about stimulus. Maybe someone makes a comment about knucklehead anti-vaxxers. Whatever it is, the conversation has veered from the innocuous to the political. It’s happening more and more.
It’s not quite like the feeling of your car spinning out of control. Rather, it’s more like driving across a patch of black ice — you have to decide quickly what to do. Steer the conversation back on to solid ground? Engage? Destroy — and fall into a vast, surging tribalist sea of us v. them, where reason doesn’t work and the only option is to win at all costs?
One might have thought COVID and the vaccines would have represented some unifying moment. We could recognize our common humanity, be more compassionate with each other, sacrifice for each other … and then celebrate the Exceptional Americanism that brought us, in less than a year and a half, a batch of vaccines by which we might turn the corner.
Instead, the polarization of the country seems to consume everything in its wake. These days everything has become political, meaning a battleground by which to posit our values and our beliefs against other values and beliefs, with the fate of our own lives and the country always hanging precipitously in the background. Sports, the arts, education, media, transportation. Facts themselves. Our political parties, which were once more ideologically diverse, and more alike, are now pushing hard in opposite directions. Our deepening factions offer us some psychological comfort in fractious times, a sense of belonging, but doesn’t that feel like a hollow win? I don’t know whether our politics is breaking down because we are breaking down, or vice versa, but I don’t see any easy fixes.
Only hard ones, with no guarantee of success. People from disparate races, classes, value systems are going to have to be thrust into closer contact, so that they’ll debate and engage. The point, as I see it, is not to render conflict or disagreement moot. There will be no “happy consensus.” The best we can hope for is a begrudging consensus. But even this demands a nuance of thought that I’m not sure we’re up for. Flexibility and subtlety require time, patience, effort, and so are obviously a pain in the ass as our attention spans seem to dwindle by the year.
I’d love to tell you I was relishing these moments of veer: jerking the wheel harder into those curves, as it were, hitting the gas, “Thelma & Louise” style. Really making strong points in conversations and Facebook threads. But, as you can guess, I tend to hit the brakes. I won’t change anyone’s mind; I’ll drown in the growing coarseness of our polarized moment. Friendships will suffer. Why bother?
But to not engage, ultimately, is to accept a kind of intellectual and psychological defeat, to retreat back to a world of Facebook likes and banally uplifting television commercials. If you’ll indulge the most wretched of cliches: This really is how you play the game now. And the game never ends: The 2022 midterms will be here before you know it, so too, it seems, will Trump Round 2. So: Let’s own the veer, let’s welcome those uncomfortable moments when the conversation gets a bit funky; let’s embrace them. There’s a New Year’s resolution for you, for me.
Reducing our polarization is, to me, not a quest to lessen our disagreements. That’s a fool’s quest. The best we can hope for is to foster a commitment to serious, meaningful, grown-up debate. Debate that fuels our passion but also nurtures a cool, discerning perspective. It’s a shared commitment to the only thing that might finally tie us together: the possibility of a fair fight.