We, like the majority of our nation, were shocked and horrified to see overt Nazi symbolism in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. We never imagined that we’d see a prominent demonstration in the U.S. publicly glorifying Hitler’s atrocities. And added to that hurt is the death of Heather Heyer from the (alleged) actions of a young man who marched with the white supremacists. We can’t believe we’re in this place in 2017.
The images from Charlottesville that we saw on TV were hauntingly like what the Germans saw before Hitler took over—actions that inspired the well-known words of German pastor Martin Niemoller, now posted in the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Is that what Heather Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, was thinking about when she said at her daughter’s funeral, “I’d rather have my child, but, by golly, if I have to give her up, we better make it count…If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”?
What should do with our outrage?
Demographic data show that we are increasingly dividing ourselves geographically into like-minded groups. When we can’t physically gather with like-minded people, we can find them on the internet. And all of the like-minded groups can find websites that they interpret as proof for their beliefs. Author Bill Bishop, who wrote about that phenomenon in his book The Big Sort, acknowledges the innate need to be around those who are like us and the discomfort of being around those who don’t share our views and way of life—but notes that the geographical sorting has led to a deeper ideological divide in the country.
Our country started as a group of separate entities that didn’t really want to give up their individualism, but persisted through a painful and divisive process until the majority agreed on a set of compromises. They understood that the constitution that united them would make them stronger than they could be if they remained separate.
Perhaps in the long process of working out the compromises that created our constitution, our founding fathers developed some understanding of why those with whom they differed had such strongly held beliefs. The author Jonathan Haidt says that in order to communicate with those who have differing opinions, we need to open our minds to the underlying moral intuitions that guide their decisions.
Maybe, when something momentous shakes up our comfortable lives, it helps us find what can unify us. At a time when Congress is as divided as it’s ever been, and unable to govern due to the depths of the divisions, the events in Charlottesville brought the divided parties together—united in the assertion that white nationalism will not define the country.
We have too many differences to move forward without some compromises. In Colorado we have a glimmer of hope—legislators compromising to achieve a greater good. Our U.S. senators from opposing parties have worked with each other on legislation and they’ve both reached across the aisle to other senators. Our Democratic governor is working with a Republican governor on health care—and there is even a rumor that they’re considering a unity presidential bid. Maybe, just maybe, this is the way forward.
Is cooperation possible even though we have big differences and we’re each sure we’re right? Here’s hope.
Better minds than ours have researched and thought extensively about why and how our country has become so divided. If, like us, you’re troubled by the divisions and have a desire to better understand why this has happened, we think you’ll find the following authors to be articulate and insightful. What would be a daunting reading list in most of our busy lives is now accessible in small doses on our smartphones. If you don’t have time to read the books, just search for any of these names and select among the many podcast interviews with these thoughtful authors and researchers.
The Righteous Mind, Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt takes no one side in political arguments, but helps us understand why we come to such different conclusions—and always will—but how this understanding can give us the ability to cooperate.
The Big Sort, Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop. Bishop’s research on decades of demographic data shows that we are sorting ourselves into homogeneous groups that are so ideologically like-minded, we have little understanding of those who are not like us.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance. This is a first-person story of the author, whose family moved from Appalachia but couldn’t escape the long term effects of alcoholism and poverty in their past. Unlike the other books that are research-based, this is a gripping story of one person’s life that gives us Colorado city-dwellers a close up look at a rural way of life that is falling apart in this country.