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Keep our differences in perspective
Division sells, but it's neither healthy nor honorable to participate in the transaction.
The outrage-entertainment industry, a complex that gets far more than its proper share of attention, is thoroughly entranced with the idea of dividing Americans along the most preposterous cleavages possible. A member of Congress casually tweets about "national divorce". An extremist commentator uses his platform to say that an entire political party wants "to see America completely obliterated". Even ice-cream makers now become instruments of political outrage.
■ In reality, though, the differences among Americans -- and the other 95.7% of the world's population, really -- are not all that great. Division sells, but it's neither healthy nor honorable to participate in the transaction. This isn't to say that a veneer of harmony does away with the real differences that do exist, but it is to say that profiting from disharmony is intellectually dishonest grifting.
■ Most people are good at heart -- or, at the very least, neutral. Even the highest estimates of antisocial personality disorder find it occurring to a maximum of 4% of people. That leaves at least 24 out of every 25 people inside the boundaries of normal pro-social behavior, including having a regard for the well-being of others, a sense of responsibility, and normal feelings of remorse when things go wrong.
■ Most people sample from a buffet platter of beliefs and impressions rather than a comprehensive worldview. Not only do social scientists find it hard to reliably sort Americans into political typologies, attitudes on individual issues are subject to complete reversals in public opinion over very short time horizons. Most people are malleable in their civic and political beliefs.
■ Most people want to belong to things bigger than themselves. This manifests in a wide range of ways, from the personal transcendence model of positive psychology to the forms of political activism that emerge when people feel a low sense of belonging, but the evidence points toward a strong intrinsic need to feel needed by something other than oneself. The sense of needing to matter to others can only be fulfilled by belonging to social groups and institutions.
■ Most people are eager to find meaning in the world. The Pew Research Center says 71% of American adults are at least somewhat religious, and religion isn't the only vector for existential meaning. The best-seller lists almost always contain books that explore questions of philosophy either directly or indirectly.
■ Most people just want to be left alone to pursue happiness, live freely, and remain untroubled by others, particularly the authorities. These are neither controversial nor groundbreaking assertions; they are bedrock ideals of the very union itself.
■ There should be no profit -- politically, socially, or financially -- from seeking to convince one's fellow Americans that we are not only more different than alike, but that we need to seek greater distance between us rather than expanding the common ground. The addiction to cantankerous and even violent division is toxic, both personally and culturally. It is not historically unique, but it is contemporary and potent. People of goodwill ought to see how much we have in common with most others and redouble efforts to reinforce a healthy sense of commonality.