In 2014 I was a guest on the conservative Internet radio show “Malcolm Out Loud.” The topic was divisiveness in America. Malcolm cited the heated political debate at the time on matters of alleged abuse of authority, retribution and exclusion in New York and New Jersey, and trench warfare among elected officials in Washington, D.C. I am re-posting this blog now, modified only slightly in light of the 2020 election cycle in the U.S. and other contemporary global events.
The radio conversation was remarkably civil as we attempted to tackle the question of divisiveness without being divisive ourselves; I am not certain we could have such a conversation today. I can still hear that delicate dance in our voices as I listened again to the show: each of us was on our best and most neutral behavior, aware in advance of our likely opposing perspectives. Malcolm asked another guest and me what we thought to be the root cause of these deep divisions in our society. Here is a recap of my response as best I recall:
- First of all, we must take personal responsibility for our government, regardless of whether we voted for a particular political figure or not, and not deflect that responsibility onto everybody else. Blaming ineffectiveness in Washington (or New York or Wyoming) on some external person or force is abdicating responsibility and rejecting a belief in our own capacity to make a difference. Divisiveness “out there” is no more nor less than a reflection of a divided and often confused self within. If we feel personally powerless, hopeless, economically threatened, and even if we fear becoming culturally extinct as many do for good reason all over the world, then we will “create” (elect) and follow or abhor people and policies that reflect that fear back to us. Corruption can only rule when individuals refuse to take a stand and say “Enough!” Even if we are shaking in our boots as we first try to understand, then confront, and ultimately embrace that apparent enemy, eventually we must grow the courage to do so.
- As for the root cause of divisiveness, we face contradiction all the time, often many times each day. Take, for example, a minority male, a white female, an economically struggling white male, or an educated black female: all of these people grapple with mixed messages and mixed categories all the time, depending on who is in the room. There is a socially dominant component of the self (race, gender, class, education, ethnicity, religion, for example) that revels in being favored, but there is also a subordinate component that festers. Each person feels anger and bitterness for being left out by virtue of only one aspect of their being.
- In tough economic times especially, limited resources are parceled out based on how people fit these categories. The shock comes when those who are supposed and presumed to have it all and have it easy, end up struggling to stay alive and afloat just like the rest of “them.” That shock forms the breeding ground and foundation of political extremism in multiple forms not only in the U.S., but in other countries as well.
- Particularly apparent is radical conservative extremism among working class and poor white men in the U.S. They got snookered by stated ideals and expectations, then left out of the American dream, and they are angry! Furthermore, beneath their striking out and blaming others, I would venture to say that somewhere deep within they are blaming themselves for not having “made it” the way they expected or felt they deserved or could achieve. To make matters worse they do not have a categorical reason such as race or gender to explain away their perceived failure. Facing the guilt and shame of not meeting these cultural expectations is so painful they have to lash out and blame somebody else.
- Corrupt politicians will capitalize on that interior and undeserved guilt and foster true believers in their spin that somebody in the other group has got it better. Truth be told, ninety-nine percent of us are often scared and often living on the economic edge. Once people step back and let go of these categorical hatreds, we will realize that we are all one… and that includes the one or five percent who seem to be doing all right!!
During the 1960’s I worked as a consultant for a foundation that assisted people with inherited wealth. Given their shared cultural belief that money should be earned through hard work and persistence, guilt was an important issue for these people of means. They didn’t feel they deserved the money left to them by their parents and lineage; they often managed the money poorly and even squandered it. They were ashamed an acted out in a variety of ways, including succumbing to excess in socially inappropriate ways. The purpose of the foundation was to teach them how to be good shepherds of what was a blessing, not a curse. They could be socially responsible and use their wealth in ways that would first make them feel better, and also render a service to those who had less. Few of us are aware of the struggle of people with means, and we assume that there are no contradictions among the rich, but this is simply not the case. All of us, if we are human, struggle and deal with contradiction. We are all part of that divided self who lives in a divided society. Solving a divisiveness that is externally apparent requires claiming the deep-seated divisiveness within.
Women and African-Americans are a special case, but we didn’t get a chance to talk about that on the radio show. Because of the reproductive importance of gender, women will be held back and held down even if in all other respects they should be enjoying the benefits of dominance and mastery by virtue of the other categories they occupy. This is especially true for economically comfortable white women. They cannot be permitted to develop and be creative as individuals as long as they must make babies for the lineage and support the men from behind. African-Americans are a special case, too, because of the peculiar history of slavery in the United States. While other ethnic groups arrive, assimilate, and eventually move through the possibilities for absorption into the larger culture, those little phrases “in perpetuity” and “three-fifths of a man” still cling to African-Americans from slavery’s past, binding as deeply and as permanently as gender. The current focus on “constitutionalists” imagines an American constitution without the Bill of Rights and subsequent inclusive amendments. The good old days for the alt-right serves the exclusive interests of the one percent of significantly propertied white men. The ninety-nine percent of regular white men often fail to realize that this world would exclude them as well, except as workers for the wealthy.
Ultimately the answer to Malcom Out Loud’s question boils down to three words coined by R. D. Laing: the divided self. That is the root cause of divisiveness in American politics. We, along with many others, have helped to foster terror at home and abroad because, like other colonial, post-colonial and world powers, we are afraid to face our deepest terrors within. It is time to end the blame game and look in the mirror. And when we see our unique beauty as well as our flaws, we can smile and sigh and leave everybody else alone.