The Great Wall of America

June 12, 2017

It sometimes seems like we’ve already built a wall. It’s a wall that divides urban and rural, the coasts and the heartland, conservatives and liberals. It’s a wall that has been constructed not of bricks and mortar but of Facebook feeds and coffee preferences.

We live in an age of seemingly endless choice, and with that comes the ability to curate our lives to suit our every preference. We increasingly get our news online, where we either choose from an infinite buffet of news sources that reinforce our worldview or have our news served up to us via individualized social media preferences. Our entertainment is similarly bespoke: Amazon recommends new books for me based on my past purchases; Netflix does the same for movies and television shows–not just for me, but for my second-grader, even for my 4-year-old!

What a luxury, all this choice! It sure makes life comfortable. But as we Americans are increasingly watching, reading, even eating only those things that speak to our individual preferences, are we losing some sense of shared cultural experience?

Even our palates seem to be polarized. As early as 2011, we were talking about Whole Foods versus Cracker Barrel counties and how they vote in elections. Before that, it was the Dunkin Donuts versus Starbucks divide. We have built impermeable walls around our respective worldviews, constructing little ideological fortresses that protect us from offending experiences–be they drip coffee or Colson Whitehead.

In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Secretary of Defense James Mattis was asked what worried him most in his new position. His answer:

“The lack of political unity in America. The lack of a fundamental friendliness. It seems like an awful lot of people in America and around the world feel spiritually and personally alienated, whether it be from organized religion or from local community school districts or from their governments.”

This from a Secretary of Defense! What keeps him awake at night is not nuclear terrorism or an unleashed Russian president, but the general eroding of a sense of, well, American-ness.

Peter Wehner, from the conservative Ethics and Public Policy, expanded on this theme in a recent interview with NPR:

“I think what’s happening more than I’ve experienced in my life is this dehumanization. It’s the idea that if somebody has a different view than I do, that they’re not only wrong but they’re morally corrupt or intellectually corrupt or both.”

 

The anonymity and amplification that social media affords makes it easier for us to draw generalizations about those different from us and reinforce those generalizations within a like-minded community.  

Take a hypothetical example:

A middle-aged Trump supporter in Iowa spends the majority of her day shuttling her kids about, volunteering at her church, helping take care of her sick mom. When a story on her news feed comes up about an undocumented immigrant committing a crime, it is a little too easy to channel her outrage into an impolitic Facebook post. Her post makes it through the web of social media and ends up in the Twitter feed of of some East-Coast liberal. “This woman is a lunatic,” he thinks, and retweets the woman’s post with some derisive comment about her ignorance. The whole of his knowledge of this woman comes from one angry post. She doesn’t know of his derision, she’s not personally hurt or insulted. But our cultural fabric tears just a tiny bit. And this happens every single day.

The Great Wall of America exists, I’m afraid. Perhaps this polarization was inevitable, but I don’t think it’s irrecoverable. Maybe we are just a little bit lazy. Maybe all of this choice has made it a little too easy to stay within our very comfortable comfort zones. Let’s aim for just a little more grace. Let’s work harder to find common ground, to look outside our happy little bubbles. Let’s agree to disagree, put away the daggers, and start to dismantle this ugly new wall.