Last month, I refused my grandmother’s Facebook friend request. It was no cavalier decision – we’re talking hours of internal debate. Pros: Better access to pie recipes and regular updates about Mississippi tide levels. Cons: I would have to constantly explain lolcats and Rickrolling, apologize for the lewd comments of my virtual friends, and defend the politically progressive links I tend to post. The tiebreaker came in the form of an e-mail my grandmother sent to the entire family. The subject heading was “Remember those that fought and died for this flag too!” and it consisted of a single URL, which led to a digital history of… wait for it… the Confederate Flag. My mother summed it up best in a one-line reply: “What is wrong with my parents??” What indeed? Clearly I couldn’t have any rogue racists on my Facebook page (I mean, ones I didn’t go to high school with), so I respectfully declined the friend request and swore not to mention the Internet at future family gatherings. But the Facebook refusal has lingered, specifically because my grandmother is not a racist, rogue or otherwise. She’s a beautiful, caring woman and an e-mail like that would have been unimaginable ten years ago. Today though, these types of missives are becoming disturbingly commonplace.
I’m very close to my grandparents. They are kind, generous, loving people who lived just down the street for nearly all of my formative years. I was their cat-sitter, they were my cookie-providers. When I hopped on my bicycle (which was nearly every day), my grandmother was the de facto destination, and she always made time for grimy legs on pristine couches. For years, my grandfather drove me to school, the car falling quiet as Paul Harvey unfolded the “rest of the story.” I watched and learned as my grandfather stood up for the rights and wages of the Vietnamese custodial staff against the weight of the entire school administration… and won. From them, I learned that the hallmark of a “good person” was his or her treatment of individuals. From them, I learned that “right” meant helping the poor, defending the weak and speaking up against injustice. Politics back then seemed… easy somehow. After all, everyone wanted the same things – safe neighborhoods, a strong job market, a world that seemed “fair” – so political debates seemed as loaded as arguing about the best route to the movie theater. When I entered my more radical high school and college years, the familial political rifts that erupted were sincere but inoffensive. I thought the Iraq war was pre-emptive and wrong, while my Naval Commander grandfather believed the removal of an abusive dictator justified an attack. I thought the mental health safety net unraveled during the Reagan administration should be strengthened, that welfare programs should be more firmly established, that arts education funding should be doubled, tripled, quadrupled, while my grandfather, who built a stable retirement by careful planning and hard work, believed these things were best left to local churches, families, and community groups. And though we disagreed on nearly every policy, I always understood his positions. They weren’t crazy, they were… different. And at the core, I knew we shared the same idea – How do we make the world better? As individuals, my grandparents gave freely to the church and to charity, but they distrusted the inefficiencies of a Leviathan government. I suppose I trusted individuals less and thought mandatory taxes and stronger institutional programs were necessary to improve the country. Our disagreements seemed like nothing more than counterweights dragging us toward the same goal. Fine. Normal. Good. But in the last few years, I’ve seen those counterweights drift. And it scares me.
These days, I can expect at least one politically-charged email a week from my grandfather, usually sent to the entire family and usually accompanied by a carefully-written screed, clearly edited and re-edited, scrubbed clean of any “bias” or “offensive” language. Links like “The Truth About Global Warming,” accompanied by the sentence, “We should be skeptical of everything, and it’s important to read the information that’s out there.” Links like “Obamacare will institute Death Panels and eradicate society as we know it,” followed by a paragraph about the freedom he fought for during his thirty-year service in the U.S. Military. Links to pundits like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity levying vituperative attacks against the “liberal” Media or “fascist” Left or “socialist” President, followed by a sincere plea to “Look at the facts and don’t believe everything you read.” Certainly, none of these e-mails were intended to be offensive polemics, and I know he would be shocked to find that they caused discord or revulsion. He’s only trying to help. Both of my grandparents sense impending global instability in their pocketbooks, on television, and on the streets, and they (rightfully) want to warn their loved ones against the perils of the path we’re on. That part, I understand. I want them to know I share those broad concerns, just not their proposed solutions or their specific causal attributions. Carefully-worded replies filled with links to facts or studies (or often, Snopes.com) are, at best, ignored. At worst, they become the start of family-size battles over “respect for one’s elders” or “knowing one’s place.” My family, once a staunch supporter of education, science and knowledge, has drifted with its chosen political party and that drift has left us with nothing much to say to each other.
It’s different than it was and that upsets me. If I can’t have a reasonable conversation about the future of the country with people who I know love and respect me, and whom I love and respect more than words allow, how then am I to engage in these conversations with relative strangers? If facts carry no weight, if science is both misunderstood and mistrusted, if PhDs carry no more cache than GEDs, if there is no common pool of facts we all must draw from, how then do we move forward as a country? There are growing mountains of literature devoted to this subject, but none seems as prescient as the recent slate of neuroscience publications. George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley, has published much about the use of language and framing in politics, but his new book, The Political Mind, goes much deeper. Through extensive peer-reviewed science, he exposes the ways in which the Enlightenment-era ideal our country is based upon – the notion that all humans have the capacity to be rational decision makers – is deeply wrong. It’s just not in our genetic make-up to be unbiased deciders. Everyone is bad at predicting what will make them happy, terrible at guessing the future, atrocious at weighing conflicting information, and biologically unable to make decisions without involving their emotions. Instead of using our remarkable brains to logically weigh opposing ideas, we lead with our guts and allow fear, excitement, and hope to drive us. We are congenitally incapable of comprehending large numbers (seriously, do you really have a different reaction to “a billion” than “a trillion”?), which makes understanding governmental budget crises very, very difficult. We have a rough time understanding statistics, which makes comprehension of subjects like vaccines extraordinarily hard. Nearly all of us struggle to vote in our self-interests, but the marketing techniques designed to sway us are aggressive and they are effective. As these techniques are refined, as competition for resources stiffens, as the world heats up, as debt grows and wars spread, our extant biological differences will continue to be intentionally heightened. The problem is, only one party has wholeheartedly usurped this strategy.
Chris Mooney explores this idea in his new book, The Republican Brain. Again, using meticulous peer-reviewed research, he defends the notion that, to a large extent, our biology is at the root of our ideology. He repeatedly demonstrates that we are all susceptible to “motivated reasoning” (the tendency to seek out information that confirms what we already believe). There are certain pesky scientific findings that don’t coexist peacefully with long-standing Conservative ideals: evolution isn’t great for creationism, climatology data isn’t great for unbridled capitalism, stem cell research isn’t great for religious activists. Likewise, certain Democratic ideals don’t gel with the evidence, particularly when dealing with fracking or nuclear energy debates. What motivated reasoning, properly nurtured, allows us to do is ignore facts in favor of what we wish or assume was true. These cognitive flaws have always been a part of human biology. The problem is that, as history has marched on, the Republican Party has been the one to embrace this very human defect as an intentional political strategy. Key topics are infused with emotion, absurd strawmen are built and destroyed, arguments ad absurdum are levied with indefatigable energy. And it is effective.
The result of all this is that, sadly, Conservatives and Progressives are beginning to live in distinct, non-overlapping worlds. My grandfather literally cannot understand how I can believe some form of welfare may be a good thing. I literally cannot understand how he can believe bank bailouts are the first step toward full-blown socialism. And when two people cannot understand each other, communication becomes impossible. When a common set of facts aren’t shared, you can’t debate, you can only fight. I understand that every generation has argued with the politics of its predecessor, but it’s difficult to shake the feeling it may be different this time. It’s not that I disagree with my grandparents – I’ve welcomed divergent opinions for my entire life. It’s that I no longer understand them. It’s that conversation seems futile. The solution seems to be simple and timeless: “avoid mixing family and politics.” But the e-mail forwards continue. And my confusion festers. And politics, to me, is about practically addressing those age-old questions – “how do we live a good life?” and “How do we best live in a community?” These are questions I want to share with my family, because I need their guidance, their wisdom, their counterweight to my progressive instincts. I, like America, need dialogue to temper my beliefs. Instead, I get factually inaccurate polemics and obvious partisan rhetoric.
I wouldn’t say this has damaged my relationship with any family members—my love and appreciation for them runs far deeper than worldview differences. But I would say the last year has served as an obstacle to creating deeper connections as we all grow older, and that is not a negligible thing. I don’t want the sort of head-shaking, shoulder-shrugging mild acceptance of my elders – I want full, passionate engagement with everyone in my life, and this inability to connect makes it extremely difficult. I don’t know how to reply to an e-mail exhorting remembrance of the Confederate Flag. I don’t know how to reply to an e-mail claiming Obama is a Socialist. I don’t know how to reply to an e-mail asking readers to “look at the facts” while denying the existence of man-made climate change.
And until I figure it out, I most certainly cannot be Facebook friends with my grandmother. That and the lolcats.