Want to Understand What’s Happening in America? Watch a Divorcing Couple

Does anyone believe the conversation Americans are having about guns and school shootings is (a) thoughtful, (b) sufficiently nuanced, (c) productive, or (d) even reliably honest?

How about all those other conversations we’re having about immigration, policing, or gay rights?

Not so much, right?  Okay, so what about discussions about elections, health care, religious freedom, climate change, or race?

It’s hard these days to look at American discussions about anything that matters and conclude that we’re actually talking in any sort of productive way.

So what’s going on?  And how should we explain these conversational messes?

We know how most people would answer that question, right?

It’s THEIR fault! (You know, those people who don’t see things the way we do).   

CLEARLY, if not for Their idiocy and ignorance, we’d be able to talk sensibly and maybe make some progress in figuring something out. 

Do I exaggerate?  OR is this not exactly how many people make sense of growing polarization in our country?

Instead of having a serious conversation-about-the-conversation, for many of us, on a regular basis, all this silliness becomes yet another piece of evidence for the monstrosity and despicability of Those People: Can you Believe what he just said?!!! 

In what she calls “listening for the crazy,” Dr. Eva Witesman talks about the widespread tendency to be “scanning the headlines for the latest thing to roll your eyes at” and “finding the one really, truly, stupid thing the other side just did that you can retweet or share.” She continues, “Listening for crazy is scrolling for evidence that the other side — of any debate, really — is completely batty. Cuckoo. Loopy. Harebrained. Deranged. Antisocial. Mentally ill. Psychopathic. Narcissistic. Wrong.”

None of this, of course, sounds that unfamiliar to anyone who has witnessed up close a (typical) divorcing couple.

What divorce dynamics might teach us.  Across the many varied details of divorces, some of the patterns can be remarkably similar.  For instance, no matter what sweetness brought two people together – no matter what goodness they used to see in each other,  there is very often no more sweetness or goodness anywhere to be found!

In place of any remnant virtue is a dramatically barren wasteland of anything even slightly pleasant.  Qualities and characteristics that used to be respected and appreciated become gnawing, nagging, and grinding.

In this raw place, what used to be “small things” can trigger whole days of griping and resentment. Virtually every word is now interpreted out of a lens that guarantees the distance will grow.  In this way, otherwise minor points, become big issues.

And almost every interaction ceases to a place of connection and understanding.  War is on…and who’s going to win?

Again, do I exaggerate?  Many (not all) divorcing couples end up embodying these painful dynamics. Within these hostile conditions, it becomes predictably impossible to have a thoughtful conversation about…well, basically, anything. 

Who gets the kids for Christmas Eve?  What time is parent teacher conference?  Why was Riley late to school again today?

Everything becomes yet another piece of evidence for the monstrosity one person had the misfortune of ever coming to know.

The pain is palpable and seemingly constant…kind of like what we’re seeing across our precious country today, right?

Are we in the middle of a mass national divorce?

If so, it might be time to recognize the increasingly caustic positions taken up publicly (on both sides of the politic divide) for what they are:  resentment-fueled delusions that rival (and mimic) all those outrageous things divorcees say about each other (especially when they’re mad…).

Getting honest about our American conversations.  One of my friends was accused by his ex-wife of the most despicable acts, not because they were even remotely true…but because she was darn mad. 

How much of what we’re hearing in our public conversations today (about all those issues + more) reflects distortions arising from anger more than the actual truth of the matter? Could it be time to recognize that many of our public conversations (about most everything) have become fundamentally dishonest?

In this, the insinuation is not that many people are “lying” consciously, as much as adopting limited and distorted (aka, dishonest) positions that align with the deep resentments that never go away.  In other words, their dark emotions have convinced them of things that simply are not true. 

Talking about mass shootings.  For instance, in looking at school shootings any social scientist would have to acknowledge a multiplicity of complex (personal, social + environmental) factors that virtually all shooters share, including:

  • profound isolation among their peers
  • a history of mental illness
  • an upbringing in broken, troubled families
  • often years of exposure to dark, aggressive video games (originally designed by the military to desensitize soldiers to be able to kill people)
  • treatment with SSRI medications known in some cases to induce extraordinary (and uncharacteristic) outbursts of violence
  • an amassing of weapons (including high-powered assault versions) with surprising ease
  • going against people (administrators, teachers, students) who almost always have no way of defending themselves

Now here’s the thing:  How many of these variables are we actually talking about broadly as a country?  One – maybe two or three?

To listen to some progressive voices, there’s nothing but gun control that could make a difference – and if we did that, the mass shootings would stop.

And to listen to some conservative voices, there’s nothing but arming more people that would make a difference – and if we did that, the mass shooting would stop.

Are either of those statements an honest appraisal of all the evidence? Given the veritable Petri Dish of other surrounding violence-inducing factors, we simply can’t say as much with a straight face.  And yet, these kinds of contentions have driven hundreds and hundreds of accusations in recent days that (a) blood is on the hands of the conservatives!’ And (b) those liberals are out to take everyone’s guns!’ 

Can we call all of those accusations what they are?  Dishonest (on both sides).

Similar fundamental (and mostly unconscious) dishonesty exists across so many other conversations we’re having as a country right now.  And I believe we desperately need to recognize this openly.  At the very least, this gives us the option of consciously shifting the terms of our current conversations toward something more productive.

Getting honest (with ourselves) about some hard things. Imagine what it could mean to truly recognize the darker emotions shaping our collective perceptions of each other – and talk seriously about what it means for deep anger to have metastasized this far in our body politic? At what point does the cancer of mass accusation become collectively malignant, and even lethal?

If there’s any truth to these dangerous deeper dynamics, it’s clear that most people (on all sides) remain largely oblivious to them – blinded by the ferocity of their feelings to anything but what The Monsters keep saying + doing. Indeed, precisely like a divorce, many Americans remain riveted with obsessive preoccupation on gathering further evidence of the malevolence of Those People.

Hey, it’s hard work to gather all that damning evidence – even sometimes a full-time job!  For one local paper in my own state, it seems as if almost the entire basis of its business model is serving up additional evidence of the dastardly-ness of my own faith community. Without that, I’m almost certain the paper would simply die.

And what about us?  What would we do with our free time as Americans, if we stopped spending so much energy gathering and poring over more and more evidence for the heathenness of those other people? 

Maybe actually listen to each other?  Hear each other out – and look for solutions?

Dr. Witesman continues, “What if, under all the crazy, there is a gem of an idea? The beginning of a solution, the whisper of hope? What if, at the bottom of all that insanity, there is a perspective we hadn’t considered, a missing piece of the puzzle? The wisest innovators look for great ideas from all sources. The best problem solvers create safe spaces in which no solution is too wild to be considered. And the greatest minds vet ideas, not appearances. What if we had a whole country of watchmen who listened for the best ideas of others instead of their worst ones? What if we listened to people from all parties, all walks of life, all belief systems, ideologies and personal experiences, and served as harbingers of the good instead of the crazy? Instead of listening for the crazy, let’s listen for the bits of what others are saying that just might be sane.”

On top of the ceaseless theorizing about what’s behind the mounting political aggression, now I’ve added more of my own:  metastasizing anger on the body politic – about which we are largely unaware and (mostly) not even talking about…an anger which is blinding many of us to a fundamental dishonesty in the very positions we’ve come to embrace as “the truth” about what’s going on.

If that “truth” is not actually true….well, then what next?

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