I was eating breakfast with my dad last weekend, just sitting enjoying the beautiful Sunday morning meandering through the topics of our lives, when half way through my plate of banana nut pancakes the conversation turned to politics. My father, never one to hold back an opinion, began to passionately engage the conversation. He worked hard to prove his point, and when the “it’s a matter of fact”s came out, I knew all was lost for our peaceful breakfast. But I noticed, more than I ever have in the past, that his matters of fact were, in fact, matters of assumption. I raised the point with him. He didn’t care much for the point. And I realized there, in that moment, how bad things have really become. Because we’ve pushed our assumptions of others to the point of assigning them the value of fact. I fear that while that has likely always been present in human logic, it is becoming more prevalent. And I realize…
We are a polarized people.
Let’s try an experiment. See how bad it is. Read both of the following observations.
The Obama Administration recently set up an email account the public can use to report misinformation they hear about the present health care reform initiative. The White House blog explains that a great deal of erroneous information is being disseminated through “chain emails or casual conversation”. The blog maintains that the White House can’t keep track of all this misinformation, so they would like for us to help and report anything we hear that “seems fishy” to the email account they have set up. Because of the current laws with electronic communications and the requirement that all such records be held permanently, the White House will ultimately have a list of people who have reportedly disagreed with their policy.
The Bush Administration set up a list of suspected individuals who could potentially commit acts of terror against America. The list was collected through various means, including phone taps and individuals who were reportedly observed engaging in suspicious activity. Many of the individuals on the list were prohibited from flying within the United States. The Bush Administration ultimately collected a list of people who they then monitored based on suspicion. The ACLU maintains the list has grown to include over 1,000,000 names.
Consider your reaction to both stories at this moment. I’m nearly certain you are currently forming an argument in your mind defending one of the two scenarios and finding fault with the other. There’s a good chance you might even be working on your rationale to post below in the comments. You might have even found yourself, at some point through your reading, uttering a “come on” in your mind or even aloud.
And that’s my point. Think about it. You are forming a position very likely based on the administration you believe in and support. You might even find yourself irked at me for bringing up the scenario, or even in your estimation, misrepresenting one of the two sides.
The scenarios aren’t the point. The point is how much we assume when we read them. It seems we’ve become a polarized, perpetually skeptical people. We believe in “our side” and view the other side with an air of uncertainty to the degree that we assume the worst of their intentions. And we convince ourselves we’re right to do so.
I had the incredible pleasure of hearing Deborah Meier speak a month ago, and one of her most poignant points was that we’re failing to teach empathy in our pursuit of democracy. I believe she’s absolutely correct. We’re forgetting that there are multiple sides to a story. We’re losing our perspective. And it isn’t just happening in politics.
I see this mindset increasing from a trickle to a torrent in education. Each interest group grows increasingly more skeptical of the others. Teachers assume administrators are determined to fleece them at every opportunity. Administrators assume teachers want to preserve only that which is in a teacher’s best interest. Parents assume teachers want to take the easy route. Teachers assume parents don’t respect teachers as professionals. Technology administrators assume teachers won’t do what it takes to properly use available technology. Teachers assume network administrators only want to lock down a network to make their job easier. It goes on and on.
It’s quite sad, really.
Where is the empathy? Where is the perspective? Where is the consideration in our own position for those who maintain another?
I earnestly believe we have the capacity to change. Quite honestly, I earnestly believe we have to. We can’t continue to allow this state we’re in to perpetuate to the point of eventuality that it has started.
We have to start seeing both sides of the coin. And I would hope we would feel compelled to allow this lesson to be learned by our students. Because if we don’t, the polarization might well turn into sure schism. It’s dangerously close here where we now stand.
We have the means to be better. I hope we’ll exercise those means.
Thanks to jonr for the use of the Flickr image.