Thursday, March 4, 2021
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An Election Won’t Bring an End to Our Division. Only We Can, One Person at a Time

I’ve stepped away from my keyboard for a few months, partly as I adjusted to the new challenges of teaching online and partly because 2020 has been such a challenging year.

I also have to admit that posting one’s opinions in this age of Us vs. Them hasn’t felt all that safe.

If you have followed my columns, you know that I haven’t been afraid to cover tough and often controversial subjects. These are my opinions.  I’ve written about everything from the heartbreak of losing a pet to downtown State College parking horrors to an ill-fated high school renovation plan. I’ve sometimes agreed with my employer; at other times I wrote about how decisions made at the university made me scratch my head. I’ve raised questions about elected officials. I’ve told stories of amazing people and groups doing cool things in our area. At times, I’ve asked “what was that person thinking?”

In the many years I’ve been putting my opinions out for the world to see, I’ve heard from both supporters and critics.

I’ve been told that people disagree with me because I’m too far right.  I’ve been told that people can’t stand my articles because I’m too far left.

I’ve been stopped in the grocery store. “Did you write that article about Mark Emmert?”  I had one lovely couple come to my office at Penn State on the Friday of homecoming weekend one year to tell me they read my columns from afar. I’ve been called stupid, boring, uneducated, ridiculous and insensitive.  I have received some lovely cards and letters. Some weren’t quite as nice, including one that was made from cut out magazine letters like those ransom notes featured on TV crime shows. I have had more than one person reach out and tell me that they know and can tell me the absolute truth about the university, the Board of Trustees, Jerry Sandusky and who killed JFK (OK, not really on the JFK story).

The internet comments alone can be either a pat on the back or a psychological tear down. All part of the job.

In 2020, however, putting one’s opinions out there comes with some risk.

There is not a single thing in 2020 that is not political.

To wear or not wear a mask is political. To leave your house or stay inside is political. Send kids to school or home school them? It’s political. Go to the gym. Shop at Target. Take your dog to the park. Hike in the woods. Go to see your aging parents. Shop in person at the grocery store. Watch your kid play in a youth sporting event. Everything has a side to it. I’ve even seen it in the yoga community.

If people disagree with you, get ready. In 2020, it’s no longer OK to have a different opinion.

America was built on the ability – even encouragement – of its citizens disagreeing with one another.  For 244 years, one of the best things about being American was our right to think and say what we wanted as long as those thoughts and actions didn’t bring harm to others.

For over two centuries, people in this country have had the right to think and say things that other people think are wrong, uninformed, biased, outrageous, untruthful, bigoted, prejudiced, unenlightened and just plain stupid.

We have seen at various and repeated times and places in history what happens when we attempt to silence someone because they don’t think like we do.

In 2020, it no longer seems safe to speak your mind. Someone on the thought police or the speech patrol from the other side will be standing there waiting to not only call you out about it but threaten you, or God forbid worse. They are standing there waiting to try to “cancel” you.  

Social science research has shown that where we stand on issues and then what we do about our opinions is really complicated. People will say and do things behind a screen that they won’t do in person. We know that when labeled as part of a group, people often take a more extreme position than they actually support. When put into “groups” and resources or control is at question, we become super aligned with our groups, even if individually we have more in common with the people who are the Others. Researchers at Penn State have even found a biological connection to our political views.

We are going to disagree and it’s OK.  

And, if we think after Tuesday or Friday or 2021 when the election is finally decided that it’s going to get any better, we are dreaming.

It’s going to get worse unless we all agree to stop it. Just stop it. Whoever resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not going to stop the 24/7 news, social media-fed divide in our country.  We have to do it. You and me. Us – not them. We can’t control what others do but we can decide how we react or don’t. Just because a person doesn’t agree with you doesn’t mean that they are wrong or stupid or need to be cancelled. Research has also shown that kindness and using our energy in the direction of positive thoughts and positive interactions begets more kindness and positive thoughts and interactions. I may not agree with you but I can and will still be your friend. I hope you will do the same.

We have more in common than we do differences. Individually we can and will get our country back. We can start with one person at a time.

I am going to stay away from politics for a while. It’s just not worth the nastiness and the indignance when someone disagrees.