Like many Americans, I’ve been watching the current political race with a great deal of interest. I do have a slightly different view than most in that I’m a third party voter, so I don’t have a vested interest in either of the two main parties. To be honest, I personally don’t want either of them to win (though I fully realize that our next president will either be Trump or Biden). My main focus this election however is not either candidate… it is the degree of hatred that I am seeing in the pro-Trump and pro-Biden camps. During every election, we see the usual criticisms of the “other” candidate. Sadly, that has been the norm for all of the elections, but this one appears worse. It may be that I simply don’t remember how bad it was 4 years ago (or 8 years ago or 12 years, etc.), but I don’t believe that’s the full answer. It appears to me that the degree of outright hatred has increased significantly, and that bothers me a great deal.
As I’ve been thinking about this over the past month, I’ve had a number of ‘flash of light’ type moments. I’d like to share a few of them.
The Third Party Debate
A couple weeks ago, I watched the open presidential debate which was hosted by https://freeandequal.org/ . This is a small organization (which I wholeheartedly support) who are trying to get the debates opened up to third-party candidates.
They hosted their own debate where they invited all of the candidates (FYI, Trump and Biden were both invited, though neither responded). A total of 5 candidates participated and I watched a lot of the debate.
To be completely honest, it was almost unwatchable. Without the financial and media resources available to the main parties, the debate suffered from horrible technical issues. I hope that the recorded version of the debate has corrected some of those issues (though I have not gone back to re-watch it to see if that is the case). They have another debate scheduled if you’re interested.
And the most generous thing I can say about the candidates is that they lack polish. They were not professional politicians. Their presentation was not nearly as clean or strongly presented as someone like Biden who has been doing it for decades, or someone like Trump who is a master of self-promotion.
But two things struck me.
First, these candidates (who included candidates from an ultra-conservative Constitution Party member across the board to a far-left member of the Party for Socialism & Liberation) actually managed to be in the same room and follow a simple debate format. They took turns. They didn’t interrupt each other or try to speak over each other. These candidates had vastly different opinions from each other, and yet I didn’t hear any of them speak about the others in rude or insulting terms. Even when they didn’t agree, they were respectful of each other. Contrast this to the main presidential debate where no debate rules were followed, and it seemed less like a presidential debate and more like an elementary school playground quarrel.
The second thing that struck me was actually some of the sentiments expressed by the member of the Party for Socialism & Liberation. Please do not misconstrue this to mean that I somehow support that party. In fact, there is no political ideology further from my own than socialism, but as I was listening to her, I was struck by the fact that she really did believe the things she was saying. No, I do not agree with most (or perhaps all) of her views, but she does, and she represents a small minority of people who feel a certain way. The fact that I disagree almost entirely with their political view does not give me the license to call them evil, or to speak about them in insulting and derogatory ways. It doesn’t give me the right to ignore their concerns or treat them as invalid, simply because they are opposed to my views. As a matter of fact, speaking as she is from the standpoint of a widely disliked political stance, she is presenting an honest, but wildly unpopular belief, and that merits respect, not disdain.
The takeaway: Politeness, respect, and civility can exists, even in the near total absence of agreement.
The Best of Enemies
Another thing I’ve been reflecting on is a movie I watched with my wife about a year ago called The Best of Enemies. To begin with, I am going to highly recommend this movie. It’s a mostly-accurate presentation of a true historical event and an excellent movie.
In 1971, racial tension was high in North Carolina, and at opposite ends of the spectrum were a black civil rights activist (Ann Atwater) and a Klu Kux Clan leader (C. P. Ellis). Their town is facing the need to merge two segregated schools. Because each side is unwilling to compromise, a moderator is brought in who arranges a series of meetings involving Ann and C. P. Initially, neither wanted to meet, but circumstances force the situation, and they hold a series of meetings where the moderator forces them to really examine their own position, and the position of the “other side” in a relatively civil fashion.
At the end of the meetings, they vote on whether to merge the schools. At that time, C. P. renounces his KKK membership and votes to end segregation. In real life, this actually happened, and he and Ann became lifelong friends until he passed away. Ann spoke the eulogy at his funeral.
Although some of the movie was not strictly accurate, one aspect of it has to be true (because there is simply no way that it could be false given the outcome). The moderator forced both sides to honestly look at the other side, and reevaluate their own beliefs through that new perspective. I say that this must be true based on one idea: a KKK leader does not renounce his membership and become friends with a black activist, and a black activist does not become friends with a former KKK leader unless there was a great deal of honest, open discussion and an attempt to understand the other.
The takeaway: Opposing sides can find common ground provided they are willing to talk to each other and try to understand each other. Open, respectful communication tears down walls.
Basis Sets and Kitchen Ingredients
The third thing that I have been thinking of is a mathematical concept that I used back when I was in graduate school called ‘basis sets’. To explain it simply, sometimes you have a mathematical function that is so complex that you actually cannot determine it. But you can take a set of simple functions that have some similarity to the complex function and you can approximate the complex function by adding up a number of the simpler functions. If you add enough of the simple functions together, you can get pretty close to describing the complex function.
The important principle here is that the more simple functions you have, the closer you can get to describing the complex function. In order to come up with a mathematically close description of the complex function, you have to use as many basis functions as you can.
Another way of looking at this is to think of ingredients in a kitchen. If I go into the kitchen, and I want to make some spaghetti, and in the kitchen I have 10 ingredients, then I can set about making some spaghetti.
Now, if I add an 11th ingredient, I can make some spaghetti, and mathematically speaking, I am guaranteed that the spaghetti I can make at that time will be at least as good as the fist batch. The reason is pretty simple. If the 11th ingredient is something that can’t be used, I can just ignore it and my 11-ingredient spaghetti is just as good as my 10-ingredient batch (because it is the same). But if that 11th ingredient happens to be something like oregano or basil, then I can use it to improve the flavor of the sauce, and my 2nd batch will be better than the first.
Now, in political terms, this analogy goes like this: if you have information from 2 sources (parties), you can make a decision that may or may not be good. But if you have information from 3 sources, your decision can be at least as good, and probably better. And 4 sources is better than 3.
If you have a political environment with only a single party, your decisions are going to be very limited. Given that in our current environment, most decisions are made by only one party (whichever party happens to hold the 51% majority), most of the decisions being made today fall into that category. It is no wonder that virtually all political decisions currently being made are polarizing, and not generally well received.
If the decision was made using the input from two parties, both given weight and honest consideration, the decision will probably be better. And if you could include the voice from other parties (including a number of the minority parties that represents smaller, but still significant populations), those decisions could be even stronger.
The takeaway: Listening to other people’s points of view will benefit all of us, and the more opinions we can take into account, the better the potential outcome. In addition, this allow us to make decisions that can be supported by all, rather than just by our party.
So the answer is…
The common theme is polite, honest discussion and willingness to compromise.
Are you concerned about the civil unrest due to racial problems? Or the flip side of that, white supremacy? I know that I am concerned about that. The answer is not armed protests. The answer is polite, honest discussion. And it has to involve people on BOTH sides of the issue.
If we could hold an honest, open discussion with someone who’s beliefs are completely counter to our own, and if we could do it without insults, we could actually solve those problems. No, it would not happen immediately, but that is the ONLY way to solve those issues.
Solving a problem like racial issues is NOT going to be solved by laws passed by whichever political party you believe in. True, the laws may be required as a stop-gap measure, but the true solution of the problem will be done by breaking down the barriers with polite communication. It will be done in spite of the laws, not because of the laws. As a matter of fact, the laws will become less and less important.
As a nation, it is imperative that we begin to talk to each other… and to listen. This will involve effort on our part. It will involve learning to make compromises, an art that seems totally lacking in our current political state.
We must become a nation, and a government, where unpopular beliefs are given a voice. We must become willing to listen to those voices respectfully.
A government where unpopular or minority beliefs (such as white supremacy, socialism, but it can also include any number of other beliefs that are only accepted by a small population) are given a voice will go a long way to wiping out the bad aspects of those ideologies… and we will find that we are able to wipe out some bad aspects from our ideologies along the way.
We cannot be reacting with hatred to “the other side“. We don’t have to agree with them… but we DO have to listen, to try to understand, and carefully evaluate our own stance to see where our beliefs may need to change to allow the two of us to live side-by-side in peace, even if not in agreement. If you can honestly say “I absolutely believe my party is the right one, and there can be no compromise with the other party“, then you’re part of the problem.
It DOES NOT MATTER who wins this election. It might be Trump. It might be Biden. As long as the hatred continues, we all lose. No major problems will be solved by either candidate, so long as the two parties, and we the people who vote for them, insist on “my way or the highway“.