Aspen Untucked: Building Bridges in a Polarized Nation
July 5, 2017
We've heard it, read it and seen it in the news lately (and by "lately," I mean all day every day): our country is extremely polarized. This climate of divisiveness, which started way before the election, shows no signs of getting better. In fact, increasingly in this country, we are surrounding ourselves with like-minded individuals, people who have similar beliefs to our own, making our differences as Americans greater and greater.
This troublesome issue of polarization was referenced in just about every session last week that I attended at the Aspen Ideas Festival. There were scores of vital minds speaking on this problem very eloquently, relating it to topics ranging from climate change to late-night comedy. One particular figure I was incredibly excited to hear speak about it was journalist and author Fareed Zakaria.
Zakaria has worked in the media for 25 years. Some of his most notable positions include editor for Newsweek International and editor-at-large for Time. He's also written several books. Currently, he has his own show on CNN called "GPS (Global Public Square)," and he's a columnist for the Washington Post. I've enjoyed his work for a long time, but a piece he recently did was particularly compelling for me. Zakaria took on the self-proclaimed liberals during graduation season. In May, graduates who didn't appreciate their guest commencement speakers — like Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — chose to boo them or walk out of their own ceremony because of their presence.
Zakaria said this very action contradicts the heart of what higher education institutions stand for: diversity in thought. That these students, by walking out on conservative voices, were trying to dismiss freedom of speech, one of the most important rights we have as Americans.
"Freedom of speech and thought is not just for warm, fuzzy ideas we find comfortable. It's for ideas that we find offensive," Zakaria said on his show.
The tendency liberals have to block out ideas, thoughts and beliefs they find offensive is very similar to the anti-intellectualism and denial of facts from the right, he said. That at the end of the day, we are all looking to tell the other side they are wrong. I took Zakaria's argument very seriously. I already knew that neither the left or the right was handling disagreement well, but this laid it out succinctly for me. Whether we are liberals, conservatives or centrists, we're all to blame for the polarization in this country. We must each make a point to check our thoughts and comments often, to listen to others and be able to ask: What if I'm wrong? When Zakaria came to the Aspen Ideas Festival last week, he presented a talk titled, "The Roots and Future of Populism." He spoke about the past 50 years and how technology has brought the world closer together. But with fewer barriers in communication, we also have become more closed off to other cultures, other races. As of late, this is particularly noticeable in Western countries.
It's strange that, in this age of information, we have all become more closed off from one another. We live in our own echo chambers, where our beliefs are reaffirmed by stories, people and even facts that we agree with. We manage to get stuck in group thinks that don't challenge our beliefs, that don't dare us to be wrong or learn something new. As a proud member of the media, this is a harsh reality for me to come to. I've always prided myself on being open-minded, on listening to other opinions that don't match with my own. But maybe I haven't been doing enough of that as of late.
After Zakaria's talk, I was able to sit down with him and ask about polarization and what we could do to stop it. I asked him specifically about ways he tries to build bridges and create trust with his audience. He said it's important to look at the full issue or full proposal and not jump to conclusions just because we assume we won't agree with something.
"You have to try to convey to people that you are looking at this stuff fairly. You're not approaching it from the point of view that says, 'I'm on a team and my team is always right and the other team is always wrong,'" he said.
Zakaria said the division in this country is getting worse, but he still has hope that we can turn it around. That there are several respectable news organizations that are working hard to bring the American people unbiased news, and that we must continue to do that to keep our democracy functioning.
In the midst of all my worries, Zakaria gave me hope for the future. I still think, even though things are very bad, we can achieve what he's talking about. We can learn to listen to one another and build bridges. We have to do this, for our own sake and the sake of the country.
It won't happen overnight, but it will happen.
"We've got to recognize that societies move slowly, and that there has to be some, not accommodation on principal, but accommodation on reality that people are at different stages on these issues," Zakaria said during his talk.
Zakaria ended his talk with a small dose of hope that made me smile. He said young people, particularly those under 35 (a.k.a. millennials) are much more eager to live and thrive in diverse communities.
"The reality is that the younger generation wants a world in which they can be connected to the rest of the world. They want an economy which is diverse and flexible and open and technologically advanced. They want a society that is pluralistic and multicultural. They want it because they understand that it enriches them. So I think we are going to be fine."
Finally, it appears that us millennials have gotten something right. Now, we just have work to build bridges, not burn them.
To hear the audio of the interview with Zakaria, go to aspenpublicradio.org. To reach Barbara, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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