Reversing our culture of division

Ian Sams

On Sunday, The New York Times ran letters to the editor from retiring Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and former Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., that decried the partisanship and inefficacy of the United States Senate.

In their letters, they laid out past grievances with their experiences in the chamber, highlighting countless problems that modern senators face in building consensus and affecting bipartisanship.

Bayh’s piece, titled “Why I’m Leaving the Senate,” listed problem after problem with the U.S. Senate, including improper campaign finance laws, a lack of social interaction between senators, the constancy of campaigning and increasing willingness to employ the filibuster.

Chafee’s letter, titled “Goodbye to All That,” laid out his desire for and belief in a strong third party for the American political system.

Chafee, now an independent running for governor of Rhode Island, highlighted Bayh’s decision to depart from the U.S. Senate as yet another example of good leaders seeking an alternative. He alleges that Bayh, like many senators who came before him, are hungry for a better system and simply will not back out of the picture completely. In fact, Chafee seems to suggest Bayh may take a lead role in building a viable third party for the future.

Bayh, on the other hand, suggested ways in which he will act in his remaining time as a U.S. senator to reform Congress and its practices to ensure future senators a better experience. He pushed for legislation restricting corporate campaign expenditures — a direct response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission — and for easier procedural methods for passing legislation.

In the end, both letters reflected a mood so pervasive our culture that it seeps all the way down to our local communities and, yes, even our campus.

A friend of mine constantly refers to it as the “us versus them mentality.” In Washington, it’s Democrats versus Republicans. In many communities, it’s black versus white, Christian versus non-Christian, poor versus rich, insider versus outsider. Here at the University, the most prominent is greek versus independent.

What occurs in all of these dichotomies is a pervasive lack of respect, understanding and acceptance. In our culture, we’ve become content to splinter off into groups — a natural part of societal structure — that truthfully don’t give a damn about the opinions or beliefs of other groups. We don’t care what other people think, and we simply won’t make an effort to understand them.

Modern media outlets feed this mentality. They present one side all the time, and they attract those already naturally bent to agree with them. No one pushes to raise the dialogue of our society, and everyone wants to have the biggest team.

But until we address that lack of respect, understanding, and acceptance at the grassroots, no progress will be made. Democrats and Republicans will become more bitterly divided. The racial and class-based gaps will only grow. Nativist tones against outsiders will grow louder. Greeks and independents will continue to squabble over petty differences.

To gain respect and understanding, we have to empathize with the circumstances and beliefs of others. We have to understand what makes people be Republican or Democrat, greek or independent, poor or rich. We also have to respect what they are without a condescension that screams, “I am right on everything, and you are nothing but wrong!”

It starts, as I said, at the grassroots — by eating lunch with someone you don’t know well, or asking someone from another socioeconomic class about their life, or reading books by people different than you. It takes us all letting our guard down and opening ourselves up to vulnerability and introspection.

If individuals in our communities take these steps, the culture will change. Perhaps one day our government will see it. Senators, congressmen, governors and the president may dine together, hear each other’s stories, or end their petty bickering and constant campaign assaults.

No one disputes that Washington — as well as our society — is too divided. We all are quick to recognize a problem. But now, we all need to do something about it. It’s time to quit waiting for others to make the first step.

Let’s start from the bottom up to reverse our culture of division, and let’s finally begin to respect, understand, and accept.

Ian Sams is a junior majoring in political science. His column runs weekly on Monday.