May 25, 2024

We don’t build bridges, we burn them

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BY REED ANFINSON

Co-Publisher Grant County Herald

From time to time we hear stories that underline just how angry some people have become in our polarized society. These are incidents that reveal the depths of the seething anger lying barely beneath the surface. They highlight the normalization of the uncivil behavior social media has created as Facebook and others profit by dividing us.

As a young man sat at a bar watching the news, a Minnesota U.S. senator came on to talk about an issue. He immediately became angry, using profanity and gestures to express what he thought of her. The TV was muted. He didn’t know what she was saying but just seeing her speak lit his fuse.

“If Americans continue to ignore or devalue core civic virtues such as commitment to civil discourse, respect for the rights of others, concern for the common good, and compassion for those in need, our experiment in democratic freedom is doomed,” Charles Haynes writes. He is the vice president of the Freedom Forum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center and a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center.

We see the same devaluing of the common good and “commitment to civil discourse” in those who fly profane political flags. It is a reflection of how many today value self over the community. A community’s efforts to create an image that says “this is a wonderful place to live, a place you want to take a job, settle down, and raise your family,” are undermined by the pettiness of personal grievance.

This sense of grievance festers when people isolate themselves in their homes, or close social circles of their like-minded tribe. It has room to grow in communities that have lost their social organizations, recreational groups, and community events that once drew people together. When gathered in these groups working with a common purpose, we overcame the divisions that otherwise would push us apart.

It is when we gather to work toward a goal, whether it be to ensure our summertime community celebration takes place or to help our team win, we put aside political differences and see each other with compassion. You won’t be agreeing politically, but you see one another, at the core, as good people.

“Frequent interaction among a diverse set of people tends to…” increase civic engagement and a sense of “mutual obligation and responsibility for action,” Robert Putnam writes in his book Bowling

Alone.

In our social actions through involvement in community organizations, local government committees, school events, and recreational teams, we build something Putnam calls “bridging capital.” It is the trust we earn in knowing each other as we work side by side. It allows two people with opposing political views to join hands for the good of a community. 

Today, we focus inward on less rewarding endeavors – watching TV, playing video games, or chatting with friends on social media. 

As we turn inward, we forgo the ties that once created the social fabric of a shared responsibility. We don’t build bridges today with those we disagree with politically, we burn them on social media and with profane flags. 

“Americans’ eagerness to express their individualism had distracted them from the bonds of community,” Marc J. Dunkleman writes in The Vanishing Neighbor. “Desperate for affirmation and equipped with new tools to keep in touch with a few prized connections, we’ve chosen to double down on the small group of people we hold most dear,” he writes.

These small groups build walls behind which we arm ourselves against the people on the other side. They have become the enemy, not fellow citizens.

“The forms of participation that have withered most noticeably reflect organized activities at the community level,” Putnam writes. We don’t “serve, work, or attend” like we once did. “Each of these activities can be undertaken only if others in the community are also active,” he writes. 

At the same time, the activities that have seen the slowest decline are those in which people can do by themselves. 

In his book, Putnam quotes British philosopher John Stuart Mill: “Without shared participation in public life a citizen ‘never thinks of any collective interest, of any objects to be pursued jointly with others but only in competition with them, and in some measure at their expense.’” We are seeing plenty of these self-centered traits evident these days.

We know our school teachers are overburdened with the requirements of educating our youth. However, we would urge that we find a way to actively teach children three things that would give them a better foundation to build their sense of civic participation.

First, teach kids to recognize truth from falsehood. They are inundated with false and misleading information on Facebook and other social media. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s testimony before Congress showed us how manipulative the social media giant is with our emotions and knowledge.

Second, teach kids how to carry on civil conversations. They should learn that it is not through shouting and insults that you persuade, but by listening and respecting other points of view. 

Finally, young people need to learn the necessity of participating in their community. 

These are lessons hard to learn from observing too many parents these days. They buy into obviously false information and spread it; they demean, yell at and use foul language to describe their opponents. They have dropped out of participating in anything outside their home.

“If we are to change the downward slide in civic and societal participation, that is where we have to start – the education of our youth…for the single most important cause of our current plight is the pervasive and continuing generational decline in almost all forms of civic engagement,” Putnam writes.

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