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Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t have to dwell on politics

Nation is divided but not supper table

11/22/2018, midnight
We are a divided nation; that is an understatement. What’s more, we increasingly hear...
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We are a divided nation; that is an understatement. What’s more, we increasingly hear we are living in our own “bubble” or echo chamber that differing views cannot penetrate. To correct the problem, many are calling for people to reach out, to talk and above all, to listen. That is all well and good, but what are we supposed to talk about? We can’t hope to listen without a topic for finding common ground.

There are (at least) two prominent issues in this political season that can serve as a bridge across our political divides. The first is that the political and economic system needs fixing because it favors those with special status or access. The second is that income inequality is reaching an intolerable level.

Might these two topics help mend the unpleasant Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners that many Americans are dreading? Instead of avoiding that unpleasantness, it may be a time to embrace it.

A period of flux

There is an opportunity before us right now. While unpleasant, we live in a period of flux when beliefs can shift. This is how social change happens – in fits and spurts – something I’ve studied in looking at how culture shapes public debates around climate change.

American physicist and historian Thomas Kuhn first described this process as moving between periods of stability and periods of chaos. In the former, one set of beliefs dominates all other beliefs as the “paradigm.” But, periods of flux begin when tumultuous events upset this paradigm and a chaotic search for a new paradigm begins. Social scientists call this process of rapid social change “punctuated equilibrium.” The key is to push for change when things are most chaotic.

Any corporate change agent knows that is easiest to push for change when things are at their worst. As a quotation sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill notes, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Try thinking about that over your Thanksgiving dinner.

We all live in worlds of our own design

Our country has broken into deeply divided tribes: Black versus White, left versus right, urban versus rural, the coasts versus the middle. We have become suspicious of each other, questioning motives before considering ideas.

Facts, it seems, have become less important than the political and ideological affiliation of their source. We seem to consider evidence only when it is accepted or, ideally, presented by those who represent our tribe and we dismiss information that is advocated by sources that represent groups whose values we reject.

This divide is ever deeper today because of social media, a relatively new force in our society. Social media has “democratized knowledge” because the gatekeepers for determining the quality of information have been taken down. But social media also creates the conditions for what has been termed fake news to run rampant.

Web-based media sites, and increasingly social media services Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, allow us to find information to support any position we seek to hold and find a community of people that will share those positions – a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. As a result, the internet doesn’t always make us more informed, but it often makes us more certain. We self-create what Eli Pariser calls our “filter bubbles.”