The Transylvania Times -

Is There A Way To Avoid Civil Unrest?

Series: The Journey Inward | Story 1

Last updated 9/23/2020 at 4:36pm

Police Chief Lance Arnold of Weatherford, Texas, quoted in The Week magazine said that “It seems like we as a country have moved right past the discussion phase of things and now we just are at the stage of conflict, being at odds, distrust and disbelief. This is not who we are, and it’s almost like we are living in a different time and a different place.”

From the same report we read that: “In a spate of exchanges that have spanned from Kalamazoo, Mich., and Bloomington, In., to Chicago and Portland, Ore., people on both sides of the United States political and cultural divide have been filmed exchanging punches, beating one another with sticks and flagpoles, or standing face to face with weapons, often with police appearing to be little more than observers. The violence took an even more ominous turn when 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly shot and killed two people in Kenosha, Wis.”

A key phrase in the above quote is “have been filmed.” Many forces – political, economic, cultural – have created the morass that Police Chief Lance Arnold refers to. Undoubtably, a contributing reason is that so much of life is now captured on video. Nothing has strengthened tribal animus on both sides of the political divide as the fact that every day we hear about the worst things done by members of either side that is then filtered into the social media feeds of the other tribe.

If, for example, you are watching a Trump supporter throw a fit over having to wear a mask in Walmart, that is not necessarily a typical behavior of Trump supporters. But you will see that because it is the most obnoxious thing any Trump supporter is doing that day.

Likewise, if we see an opponent of Trump throw objects at police, then that becomes the most reprehensible thing a left-wing protester does that day.

According to a Princeton University study, 93 percent of the Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful. That news is pushed aside when we see a minority of people engaged in lawless acts. Then the focus is on the most extreme or violent behavior rather than the most peaceful.

Princeton professor Robert Wright puts it this way: “So we get a positive-feedback cycle that draws us toward the abyss: people on each side, incensed or frightened by extreme behavior on the other side that they take as closer to normal than it is get more passionate in their tribal commitments — which leads more of them to do things extreme enough to stand a chance of making it into the other tribe’s social media feed. Which then leads to the same reaction on the other side, and so on.”

Over time, attitudes and behaviors that were once unusual – for example, within a span of five days, Americans on both sides of the political divide were killed by Americans on the other side – may become more usual. A spiral of intimidation, perhaps violence, is set into place.

It is imperative that we remind ourselves that 99 percent of Trump supporters do not brandish weapons at protesters or 99 percent of Trump opponents are not inclined to sling fuselages at police.

We can keep things in perspective by recognizing our tendencies toward tribalism. That does not mean we refrain from challenging incendiary messages from politicians or the inflammatory messages of super spreaders on various media sources, including media potentates who peddle hype for the purpose of increasing their audience.

And when we are tempted to share something tribe-related on Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere, can we count to 10, close our eyes and examine the feeling behind the temptation. If animus, even hate, is stirred inside us, we accept our human feelings but chose not to use that feeling as a guide to act. If we share a post out of animosity, we are putting fuel to the fire, are we not?

A family member recently posted on Facebook a derogatory quote about Trump not thinking that one of her friends could be a Trump supporter. Things could have gone south in a hurry. But they did not. When the friend called her on that, the family member apologized.

For what it is worth, if I feel that what I write does more good than harm, even if provocative, then I go ahead and put pen to paper. Even so, my moral compass on what is good may offend the sensitivities of another person, as my family member found out. That is a risk we take.

This upcoming election is one of the most consequential in our lifetime. There is plenty to rage about, especially when we perceive the other side spout what we are convinced is misinformation. I know this is infuriating.

When I immerse myself in the news feeds of social media and become wound up by tribal thinking, I often lose touch with my spiritual center. I have allowed external information to not only capture my attention but also take up residence in my mind. This happens more often than I care to admit.

I recall that Jesus became involved in the civil unrest of his time. He spoke forcefully about hypocrisy, even turned tables over in the temple, but he did no harm, no violence. His spirit was tempered by those times when he found spaces to pray and meditate.

Remaining faithful to my internal spiritual foundation may I state my criticisms in a reasoned tone, knowing that I too can add heat to political discourse.

The next time I find myself deriving pleasure from the badness of the other side, I might pause and ask how I can douse the flames of civil unrest within me without sacrificing my vision of hope for our country.

(Dr. John Campbell is a psychotherapist and clergyperson living in Brevard.)


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