Photo: Alessandro Valli

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing
himself.” — Leo Tolstoy

Our political system is sitting at the intersection of anger and ignorance. After the election a lot of discussion focused on the echo chamber –the like-minded reinforcement of one’s ideas. While this discussion is helpful, it overlooks an integral point many Americans, besides being ignorant about politics, are ignorant about their fellow Americans and the world outside their own. Blame it on the Internet, the advent of social media, fake news, talk-radio, millennials, politicians, or geography, but the truth is many Americans know little about their fellow citizens. While ignorance about fellow citizens might seem innocuous and excusable, it’s anything but. Unlike science, where ignorance can drive healthy speculation, personal relationships suffer under ignorance. Knowing little about other people means you likely know little about issues that concern them. In a democracy designed of, by, and for the people this ignorance is problematic. As Thomas Jefferson noted, a healthy democracy requires an informed citizenry. And since we’ve gone to great lengths to define the citizenry, we must now refine the concept of being informed. Being informed requires more than knowledge of the functions of government and social issues, it means knowing about our citizenry.

Social divisions, community in decline

America is divided; divided along political, ethnic, religious, economic, geographic, and social lines. And while divisions in society aren’t new or inherently bad, they are problematic when they reach the point of social divisiveness. Exploited by politicians, the media, and corporations that place agenda’s over outcomes, societal divisions have hardened to the point where politics are becoming ineffectual and community is in decline. This process will continue unabated until people interact with others and accept their personal role in the situation.

While we each engage vertically with our elected via the ballot box, we also need to engage laterally with one another across the electorate. Our democracy requires cooperation, but true cooperation cannot be imposed upon the people, it must evolve from the people. So, it’s time to acknowledge that our political impasse is driven by a social problem; and, as such, that it requires a social solution. As with many social issues, the most effective solutions come from the bottom up. And fixing our divided nation is no different –we need to stop waiting for politicians to hand down a solution. It’s time for a grassroots approach to understanding what separates us and what divides us. Trying to bridge a gap without understanding what caused the gap is akin to offering a prognosis without diagnosis, which results in a cure that ignores the symptoms.

The media and politicians: what’s happening, but not why

For too long we’ve taken a passive approach to becoming an informed citizenry and it’s limited our perceptions. The media focuses our attention on what is happening, while politicians try to focus our attention on what they’re going to do about it. As such, it is typically left to the individual to discern the why behind the what and this is where ignorance becomes dangerous. The news tells you about immigration statistics or refugees from Syria, it tells you that police are shooting black men in alarming numbers, and it tells you that Donald Trump turned out Rust Belt voters to win the election. Rarely does the media attempt to tell you why these things happen. This is partly because of the objective nature of reporting what is happening versus the subjective nature of reporting why something is happening. But it’s also because reporting why, like understanding why, takes more time — a precious commodity in the media.

Into this void step the politicians, who offer solutions to whatever is happening. But the solutions they offer are illusory, usually coming with a partisan slant designed to garner votes and promote agendas. And too often the solutions are designed to reinforce rather than challenge perceptions. Thus, the information offered by politicians and the media is of limited value in the creation of an informed citizen because it either lacks context or objectivity. In addition, both entities benefit from a divided electorate. To fix the divide, to counter the exploitation inherent in getting information from people who benefit from ignorance, individuals must take an active approach to becoming informed.

Travel, mentally and physically

Being informed about one’s fellow citizens may seem like an insurmountable task to many. This is where one can take a lesson from travelers. To reverse the ignorance people need to invest time in personally understanding the why behind their fellow citizens what. This involves getting out of your comfort zone — physically and emotionally. There’s a lot to be learned by putting yourself in a foreign environment. Be a tourist in other people’s worlds for a while. Try and understand that someone supporting a cause doesn’t mean that they hate your cause. Be a tourist in your own town, in your own state, and if the opportunity presents, outside your state or country. Try and understand that societies, along with the people that comprise them, are complex. Be a tourist on social media sites that you don’t normally visit. Ask questions and try to listen to the answers. Like travelers, take some time to enjoy the differences in the world rather than be offended by them.

If truth is truly relative, the only way to understand another’s truth is through conversation. And having these conversations requires a certain degree of patience and tolerance and the ability to be comfortable in disagreement. Unfortunately, many people are in a race to be right. More interested in proving someone wrong than in learning something new, people are not really having conversations. Dialogue is being replaced with dueling monologues and our politics are suffering by extension. Too often we equate understanding with conceding, but one can understand another’s point of view without conceding their own. Unlike with facts, where one by definition can negate another, opinions allow for the contrary

In conclusion, the pendulum of politics

While the introduction of more information won’t magically solve all of our problems, personalizing the source of the information will alter the outlook. People will still maintain the stubborn ability to ignore facts, to willfully act blindly, or to just simply do stupid things. Moreover, politicians and the media will continue to promote their biased information. However, the conversations will make us more informed citizens — informed about one another and the issues that matter to each other. Policies affect us all. And the pendulum of politics will eventually swing the other way, as it’s wont to do, so it’s an eventuality that whatever you’re political leanings are that you’ll be on the outside wishing someone would take the time to listen to you. So, to become an informed citizen start by becoming informed about your fellow citizens.

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