I recently read an op ed article in the New York Times titled: American Has a Scorn Problem. When I saw who wrote it, Tish Harrison Warner, a priest of the Anglican Church, and read the opening sentence taken from a parable in the Bible’s Book of Luke, I had a knee-jerk reaction. My automatic thinking process was telling me that the essay I was about to read could be an effort to proselytize me due to the many street vendors and mailers I have received in the past that have this goal in mind. But to my pleasant surprise the article made much sense to me. It spoke of how Americans have adopted a polarizing and moralistic way of thinking that paints those who have contrary beliefs as inhumane and monstrous. This view of the “other,” as not only wrong, but bad, eliminates the possibility of useful dialogue among those that disagree with one another.
The above essay reminded me of an interaction I had with a member of a movie group of which my wife and I belong. When it was his turn to select a film, this person chose: Blue Ruin. He and I have had a history of disagreeing with one another. For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that his views are quite a bit further toward the left than mine.
The plot line of the film, Blue Ruin, was one of revenge in which a man in his twenties has planned to avenge the murder of his parents by another family, whose leader, was being released from prison after spending some 10 years incarcerated. This man goes on a ruthless murder spree killing several family members, responsible for the death of his parents, before he himself dies. When I first reacted to the film, I felt little empathy with the protagonist. Furthermore, in general, I do not enjoy movies that glorify violence. The individual, who had selected the film, knowing that I am a psychologist expressed his surprise that I did not empathize with the main character. I did not reply to his comment at the time he made it.
Later that evening, however, I pondered over why I did not share his empathy for a man whose parents had been slain when he was a teen-ager. I realized more fully that though I may have felt empathy for the killer when his parents had been murdered, I could not feel this emotion toward a man ravaged with hatred. Moreover, the film had portrayed his sister as having gotten over the family tragedy, having married and had a child. I could not feel empathy, that is put myself in the shoes of a person who had become obsessed with revenge, at the expense of improving his life circumstances, resulting in a killing spree. I carefully took the time to write a letter to this very same person more clearly elucidating my point described above. I thought he may agree with me, but even if he did not, I was pretty sure I would get some response back indicating he had read my letter and respected my point of view. To my surprise, I never received a reply from him. When I next saw him to discuss another film with the others, I approached him telling him I was disappointed that he had never answered the letter I had taken the time to compose. He said something to the effect that he hadn’t responded because it was clear we disagreed implying he didn’t want to be bothered with people that don’t hold the same opinion as he does on issues of debate.
Polarization occurs when each side refuses to even listen to or have a conversation with the other. I began this essay by pointing out my gut reaction to an op ed article written by a priest. But I wisely decided to read the article against an instinctive reaction that would have denied me of the opportunity of seeing an important point, expressed in a unique way. Here I allowed myself to see a perspective on the polarization occurring in America from a minister’s eyes. Insofar as my colleague in the movie group refused to dialogue with me, any conversation and relationship I might have had with him was never allowed to begin. Of course, the example of the two of us moviegoers not being able to start a meaningful dialogue is a microcosm of what is going on in much of America. If we are only willing to accommodate those that think like us, we will be limiting our perspective and may be locked into a groupthink. To avoid the groupthink mentality, we need allow ourselves to hear what others have to say and avoid the knee-jerk reaction of he/she is wrong and bad. This more positive attitude will hopefully lead to a more meaningful dialogue where people can listen, with respect, to another’s viewpoint without necessarily agreeing with it.