Bracing and Embracing for 2024
With a presidential election looming in November, many (myself included) predict a nasty, acrimonious, even violent 2024. What, if anything, can be done to mitigate the anticipated ugliness? Let me begin with a story.
I was on the East Coast and had dinner with a friend I hadn’t seen in decades. Over the course of conversation, I talked about loving life in Wyoming. “Oh,” my friend responded, “I could never live in Wyoming. There are too many Republicans.”
While it was a throw-away comment and I took no offence, it strikes me as a short summation of everything that’s wrong with our country and our politics.
Essentialism and Stacking
It was an example of what David Brooks in his book, How to Know a Person calls “essentialism.” “People belong to groups,” Brooks writes, “and there is a natural human tendency to make generalizations about them … . These generalizations occasionally have some basis in reality. But they are false to some degree; and they are all hurtful to some degree.”
Brooks goes on, “Essentialism is the belief that certain groups actually have an ‘essential’ immutable nature. Essentialists imagine that people in one group are more alike than they really are … . Essentialists are guilty of ‘stacking.’ This is the practice of learning one thing about a person, then making a whole series of further assumptions about that person. If a person supported Donald Trump, then this person must also be like this, this, this, and this.”
Demonstrating essentialism and stacking, my friend assumed that if someone is a Republican, he or she believes and acts in ways such that no right-thinking person would want to live in a state swarming with them.
American Politics and Fundamentally False Thinking
And of course, he’s not alone. American politics is lousy with this kind of bad, fundamentally false thinking. Consider this.
During a visit to the city, my wife and I, instead of waiting for a table, ate dinner at the bar. If you’ve never done this, give it a try. Sitting at the bar, you meet people.
That night we met a tall and thin man in a ski cap. His hand had an ugly tattoo and one on his neck led me to think there were more. As we chatted, he told us he was “as gay as a purse full of rainbows.”
You’re doing some essentialist stacking, aren’t you? I certainly was, but I was wrong.
He strongly objects to biological males competing in women’s sports insisting that it is fundamentally unjust to deny women the success they’ve worked for and deserve. He believes the United States is on a dangerous trajectory and that Joe Biden is senile buffoon. He looks forward to voting for Donald Trump — again! To top it off, around his neck he wore a Christian medal.
So much for essentialism.
Looking Beyond the Stereotypes
“A great way to mis-see people,” writes Brooks, “is to see only a piece of them.” We need the courage and love to look beyond the prevailing stereotypes to the person, the individual made in God’s image and in need of his saving grace.
This is, of course, what Jesus did on just about every page of the Gospels. Matthew the tax collector, Simon the zealot, the woman taken in adultery, Mary Magdalene the prostitute, and Nicodemus the Pharisee are examples. “All tax collectors are … .” “All zealots are … .” “All adulterers and prostitutes are … .” “All Pharisees are … .” There were prevailing opinions and Jesus rejected them. So should His followers. He befriended all sorts of people and if he is Lord, we must do the same.
Aristotle in The Nichmachean Ethics, explored the happy life, a life lived within the city or polis and thus is centered in politics. Of the ten chapters in this book about politics, two explore friendship, without which, Aristotle wrote, politics can’t work.
With that in mind, the May 2023 U. S. Surgeon General’s advisory: “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation” reports:
Social connection — the structure, function, and quality of our relationships with others — is a critical and underappreciated contributor to individual and population health, community safety, resilience, and prosperity. However, far too many Americans lack social connection [friendships] in one or more ways, compromising these benefits and leading to poor health and other negative outcomes.
“Loneliness,” David Brooks notes “leads to meanness.” It also leads to political involvement which goes a long way to explaining the meanness of our politics and the seeming inability to trust or work with anyone not just like us.
Making an Eternal Difference
The Surgeon General’s advisory recommends actions for governments, health care, schools, philanthropy, tech companies, and just about everybody else except faith-based organizations and churches — that is, the people who can actually make the biggest difference.
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By “faith-based organizations and churches,” I don’t mean some abstraction. I mean you and me. If we don’t give up our essentialism, our stacking, our dread of — and possibly contempt for — those who don’t believe and act as we do, no one else will or can reach out to offer friendship, friendship that can make a temporal and eternal difference. Remember “friendship evangelism”? We need it more today than ever.
2024: An Ugly Year
2024 will be an ugly, acrimonious, perhaps even violent year. Most of the ugliness will be based on lies: lies that all Trump supporters or all Biden supporters are evil and beneath contempt, lies that every Democrat is like every other Democrat and every Republican is like every other Republican, lies that conservatives hate America or progressives hate America, lies that divide, alienate, and isolate.
In a world of anger, isolation, meanness, and lies about people and groups, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”
That credo makes a wonderful New Year’s resolution for what promises to be a nasty year filled with lies. Sign on and go make some new friends.
James Tonkowich, a senior contributor to The Stream, is a freelance writer, speaker and commentator on spirituality, religion and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life After Mid-Life. Jim serves as Director of Distance Learning at Wyoming Catholic College and is host of the college’s weekly podcast, “The After Dinner Scholar.”