By Marko Milenkovic '21
I first started writing this speech a couple of weeks after the U.S. Capitol riots. And like for most Americans, it was a shocking and disappointing day, a day where our democracy seemed more fragile than ever before. But what hit me the hardest was not the violence, or even the deaths, but rather the ideas upon which the attacks were based. When some of the rioters were interviewed within the capitol during the siege, they responded that they were there to stop the steal, to defend their freedom, and to keep lawmakers accountable. And when asked to elaborate they said, “Well, we saw it, we all saw the election being stolen.” It was as clear as day to them that the system was rigged, so much so that they were willing to risk their lives to “save their country.”
Yet, from the multitude of failed court cases, we know that the election was not stolen. The next president didn’t suddenly take away anyone’s freedoms. The rioter’s actions weren’t saving the country, they were trying to destroy it.
And so it brings me to the topic of truth. It is obvious that we saw a distorted reality in the minds of these people. Though unfortunately, the issue of what is true or not has to come to encompass a lot more than just a minority of rioters. We are seeing a growing schism in what the left and right and middle fundamentally see as reality. We can’t even begin to critically discuss our country’s issues because we can’t agree on what the issues are or whether they even exist.
"How do we find a common truth, and how we prevent our political schism from growing to the point where we get something worse than the capitol riots?"
So the question becomes: how do we find a common truth, and how we prevent our political schism from growing to the point where we get something worse than the capitol riots? What is the root of this disillusionment, on both sides of the spectrum?
I’d argue it's two things that have caused this. The first is a toxic “gamification” of American politics. Politics seem to be less and less about doing what’s best for Americans, and more about just winning: one side against the other, like a red vs blue football game. Politicians will do whatever it takes to get you onto their side. And in order to win, they will over-simplify and manipulate issues and policies into easy-to-understand, repeatable one-liners. From saying that building a wall will be the solution to illegal immigration to saying that introducing new social programs is as simple as cutting military spending and taxing billionaires more. This approach is toxic. It ignores long term consequences for short term gain. It crudely stereotypes whole groups of diverse people together. It depicts those who disagree with your views as caricatured villains, while simultaneously pretending your side is somehow infallible.
The second problem is with social media. When the rioters in the capitol confidently said that they saw the election being stolen, I reckon that none of them physically saw any election fraud in person, and that they were just repeating whatever they saw on their Facebook groups, subreddits, or group chats. The problem is that, unlike in the real world, where we are surrounded by a diverse set of ideas and perspectives, social media naturally creates echo chambers. It becomes easier to find groups of individuals like ourselves and those who share not only our hobbies and interests, but also our biases and skewed views. These echo chambers make it easier to fall to our confirmation bias, where we become more likely to believe something just because it supports our previous beliefs, no matter how absurd. It makes it easier for those with no credentials to appear authoritative on a subject matter under the guise of anonymity, easier to create a mob mentality, easier to lose our sense of individuality. And as a result, we lose our own unique, nuanced perspectives.
So how do we deal with these two problems? And, honestly, that’s not a question I will pretend to know the answer to. However, I hope that by telling you a short story about my personal experiences that we can get a little closer to solving it.
"It seemed like the little table in the corner of the cafeteria where we spent our free periods was the only place where a common truth came to surface."
When I was younger, I always believed that my opinion was correct. After all, I was the kid that went around telling everyone that Santa Claus was fake, long before it was good for them. For me, it was always a childish black and white: I’m right, they’re wrong.
This changed in high school when I found myself with hours and hours of shared free periods with my best friend. Everyday, we would find our seat at a little table in the corner of the cafeteria, and when we weren’t talking about shoes, watches or cars, our conversations turned to politics. It felt like we covered every trendy political issue, from discussing freedom of speech on social media, to debating about the pros and cons of nationalized healthcare to asking ourselves whether our military spending was really justified.
Previously, I had always viewed those who disagreed with me as enemies, or as ill-informed and obviously wrong. But now, I was debating with my best friend, and I knew that those labels didn’t apply to him. I could no longer dismiss the opposition to my ideas as straight out false. And, for the first time, I started to lose debates. Sometimes it was my viewpoint that was ill-informed, and we often settled on a solution, a compromise, somewhere between our two views. Yet, when we looked online to research these topics, or when we listened in on democratic or republican students’ conversations, it seemed that this conclusion was never reached. These groups were stuck in those echo-chambers where overly simplified arguments always won over the complex ones. It seemed like the little table in the corner of the cafeteria where we spent our free periods was the only place where a common truth came to surface.
And so this brings me to the point that I was trying to make. I think part of the problem with today's discourse is that we don't have that little table where we can sit down and honestly discuss issues with other individuals. It should be obvious the issues worth debating over will be complex and hard to solve, but we fail to realize this because we never directly converse with others. We simply restate what politicians or news outlets or social media comments tell us. We never spend the time required to develop nuanced viewpoints or to understand the root of other side’s stances.
And so I urge you, no matter your political affiliation, to go out and find those little metaphorical tables where you can discuss issues with real, individual, people. Not just with those that agree with you, but especially with those that disagree with you and have widely differing perspectives from yours. And not just to flatly reject and ignore their points, or take an argumentative or defensive tone, or to take disagreements personally, but to really listen to them. To show patience and tolerance. To compromise. After all, reconciliation and de-escalation will only occur when both sides give up something, when both sides show humility, and accept and understand the other side's beliefs. And while it may seem like such a small and inconsequential action, reintroducing humanity and nuance into our politics on an individual level will, little by little, start to make an impact locally and eventually, nationally.