I had an encounter this morning that drove home to me the enormity of the task facing those of us who sincerely want to help heal the wound, mend the great rift in our social fabric, unify the nation, and generally reduce the affective polarization that has people on opposing sides of the political fence calling each other terrible names, avoiding each other, rejecting our children’s choice of partner (if that person is of the opposite political stripe), refusing to sit beside each other in a restaurant, and, in the terrible, most extreme instances, willing to kill fellow citizens to impose a particular, twisted perception of reality on the entire nation. Here’s the story:
My wife and I were nearing the end of our morning walk when we reached an intersection where workmen were directing traffic. The first vehicle in line at the traffic light (a full-size, black pickup truck) was occupied by a sixty-something (I’m guessing), casually dressed gentleman. Behind him, in an older car, was a young man (30’ish?).
When the light for their lane turned green, the older gentleman was prevented from moving forward by the flagman at the corner. The younger man behind him, who could not see the flagman over the large pickup truck, allowed a couple of seconds to pass before he blew his horn four or five times, to get the pickup truck moving. We were standing on the sidewalk beside the cab of the pickup truck at this point, and I saw the older driver shaking his head, apparently irritated by the young man’s horn blowing.
I made eye contact with the older man and tried to gesture that my wife and I would inform the younger man that the work crew was preventing traffic from moving at that moment. The older man waved me off, rejecting my assistance. As he did so, he lowered the passenger side window and told me, in a tone of voice that was either agitated or angry, “I don’t need your help!”
Puzzled by his response, I leaned toward the window and asked, “Sir, why can’t I help you?” Gesturing toward the jacket I was wearing (it has an NBC peacock logo and the call letters of my old station in South Bend, WNDU, stitched on the left breast), he said, with unmistakeable disgust in his voice, “N-B-C. That’s all that needs to be said.” With that, he closed the window, turned his head away from me, and waited for the flagman to let him proceed.
I will confess I did not see that coming. I also confess it left me feeling sad and discouraged. Political scientists have been measuring the increasing polarization of our society. And we all refer to it in conversation. But encountering this very respectable looking man (he certainly wasn’t wearing horns and face paint as one of the Capitol insurrectionists did) made me realize more than ever how vehement many Americans are in their rejection of things I consider essential for the functioning of a healthy democracy (like objective, accurate, truthful, mainstream news reporting). I also realize it’s a lot easier to say I want reach out to these disaffected souls and bring them back into lawful discourse than it will be to do it.