Remember this ugly dress? I still say it’s white and gold. No matter how much I look at it, it’s white and gold. People I love and trust like my own wife tell me it’s black and blue, but I can’t see it through their eyes and my own eyes see white and gold.
One way to absorb this difference of opinion is to shrug it off. Another way is to declare the other person insane or deceitful. Yet another way is to try to come to a fact-based decision, as I did by using the eyedropper tool in Photoshop to tell me what color the actual pixels were. (Brown and gray, but that’s misleading.)
In the same way, I cannot look at Donald Trump and see a president, no matter how much I squint or tilt the image or use different lighting. For that matter, I can’t look at Hillary Clinton and feel the revulsion and loathing that others feel, even within the Democratic Party.
This is not a political post or even one about over-exposed photographs. I’ve just been thinking all day about how divided we seem to be. It’s true that we have different sets of facts, but that’s a symptom not the problem. Why do we seek out and believe different facts (or “facts”) in the first place?
I read this week that only 20% of Clinton voters have a close friend or family member voting for Trump, and only 17% of Trump supporters have a close friend or family member supporting Clinton. Somehow even as we shout at each other in all-caps across the Internet, we don’t actually talk to each other. And when we don’t talk to each other, when we don’t really know each other, it becomes easier to see one another as monsters. The people on the other side of the hill have always been monsters and cannibals, and now our neighbors are on the other side of a metaphorical hill.
Then there is a vicious cycle. When the people over the hill are monsters, we begin to define ourselves by their presence. Before the monsters came, we might have described ourselves as a peaceful hamlet of shepherds and farmers, but now we see ourselves as a citadel of warriors, tirelessly defending ourselves against the monsters: that becomes our identity. And as it becomes our identity, the shadows the strangers cast become longer, their deeds become more savage and terrible. We can’t build our reputations out of fighting worms; we must have dragons. So I think that’s what’s happening, and it concerns me even more than a Trump presidency. Even if he loses the rift remains, these two worlds, each believing their are Geats and their opponents are Grendels.
Maybe that’s where stories can help. Of course stories can reinforce the citadel-monster mentality (indeed, a thousand-year old story is behind my metaphor), but stories can also reveal the humanity of others, expose our own frailties, and compel us to self-scrutinize.
So maybe we need to do is sit by the fire and trade stories. We tell our own truthfully and with soft voices, and listen to theirs attentively and empathetically. We’ll come to understand each other. We’ll stop seeing each others as monsters, and find out that all we ever wanted was to stop being seen that way ourselves.