“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.”
These words were spoken to an audience in Indianapolis by Senator Robert F. Kennedy upon the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The brief speech has been called one of the great public addresses of the modern world. Two months later, on June 6, 1968, Kennedy himself was assassinated while campaigning for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.
The loss of these two extraordinary seekers of peace sent us reeling as a country. Most of us. There were Americans, though, who celebrated their deaths. At the time, and I remember it well, this felt shocking when it was revealed. If we own and honor our humanity, surely we cannot rejoice at the death of anyone.
But on recalling this reaction, I am also reminded of the behavior of people in the Middle East who danced upon learning that the Twin Towers had fallen in New York City. It shocked us to see them do this on news reports, and that shock held an element of terror within it. Was this truly what we are made of? Is this what those who delighted in the death of King and Kennedy were made of? And those who had shown gladness, for there were some, at the terrible assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963?
We all share the same origins, no matter what our ethnic, religious, or national background. There really is only one race, genetically speaking, according to research presented by National Geographic in their recent message that “There’s No Scientific Basis for Race — It’s a Made-Up Label.” So why do we persist in seeking division, in praising it, in coveting it, in living it? Why do we allow and accept polarization as a state of mind and heart?
Polarization is expressed through prejudiced behavior —anger, revenge, bitterness, division, and absolutism. All are a product of our ignorance and refusal to acknowledge our fundamental connection with each other. This polarization of viewpoints and allegiances arises out of one primary need — our individual desire to feel safe. We so often experience deep feelings of inadequacy for so many reasons, and these feelings increase when we encounter anything that threatens to change our world or life in any way — for immediately, we feel unsafe. We lose our bearings. Fear is the driving force in this. We believe we can bury this fear, keep it out of sight of mind and heart, if we lash out at or shun or denigrate other human beings, basing our actions on the illusion that there are differences between “us” and “them.”
“Oh, no, those differences exist!” — so says our current mantra. We WANT to believe this is true. We may, sometimes, choose to deal with this information in a civil way, but we still opt for believing in division. We still believe we all do not share common ground as human beings.
The result is a polarized country that appears to thrive at so many levels on the public revelation of those differences — in political speeches, in news media, in movies and television, or in the simple exchange of points of view over the dinner table.
Someone told me yesterday — a person who comes from a family that is politically divided — that no one dares to bring up politics when they gather together. The fierce feelings that sweep in are instantaneous. The dinner table becomes a battleground.
This scenario is repeated everywhere in our country now whenever the opportunity arises — in debates about community zoning, in the workforce, in churches, at a football game, in a child’s playground, or at a world summit. No one in these situations suggests having a lively conversation to talk things over. No one is listening to what anyone who disagrees with them has to say, nor cares what that person thinks.
So what is going on? Why do Americans want polarization? Because they do want it, no question, or we wouldn’t have it.
Again, it has to do with feeling safe. And people are driven by what is called the fight-or-flight response to conflict. Our amygdala controls this, a small almond-shaped set of neurons located deep in each temporal lobe of the brain — it has a key role in how we process our emotions. It is one of the oldest, primordial regions of the brain, and the amygdala is activated when we are confronted by actual physical or perceived danger. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, this could mean escaping the attack of a woolly mammoth or a saber-toothed tiger. Today, this small set of neurons is activated when we feel attacked because someone is talking to us about a difference of opinion or belief. Their words are felt as an attack on our safety just as strongly as if we were in actual physical danger. And when those words are spoken, we revert back to the hundreds of thousands of years of collective response — seek cover, or gear up for battle — flee, or fight. There is no in-between. And by refusing to talk to people who do not share our exact views, we protect ourselves — we evade the danger.
What we believe deep down is that we are evading the danger of dissent because it has the frightening power to change our minds.
Dissent is the central power given to us by our forefathers who wrote and signed the Constitution of the United States. They knew from their experience in Europe with monarchies and oligarchies that without freedom of speech and the right to dissent, we are doomed to an essentially totalitarian government. It is in the freedom and ability to change our minds, to allow differences of opinion, thought, outlook, and interest, that moves us forward, that gives us the chance to re-think what we are doing, and gives us the energy and will to find a better way.
Polarization is the easy path.
With it, we no longer have to re-think our own behavior — we stick with “our crowd” so we do not have to reconsider our outlook at all, ever. We are safe. NO DANGER.
Yes, we can refuse to allow change. Yes, we can refuse to seek and allow common ground with others who are different from us in some way. Yes, we can cling to this outlook because it is our safety net, again and again and again…
But if we remain in our safe world, it eventually becomes untenable. We stagnate, cease to grow. Such a state can never remain our ultimate path for long, because human beings are always in search of discovering who they are. We hunger to go beyond our limitations, even if that hunger is just a whisper in our hearts and minds.
Right now, you are the product of 4.543 billion years, the age of the Earth. It took that amount of time to create you as you are this second. Everything that happened over those eons has led to this moment in time — you.
In fact, you are the culmination of an even greater duration of time because everything, every element that composes our bodies, comes originally from the stars — we are indeed made of “star stuff,” as the astronomer Carl Sagan said.
Look closely at the image above taken by the Cassini Mission in 2017. There is our Earth, a pinpoint in the vast reaches of space. Are we meant to spend this exceedingly brief span of time we have here on this tiny planet— less than a moment in cosmic time — in stagnant, polarized safety, or in the willing exploration, with joy and wonder, of all there is for us to encounter?
It is a choice.