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A house divided: Ending the culture war before it destroys us

Austin Photo: Author_Garland Grey

Last week, the House Committee on the Judiciary convened to discuss new regulations aimed at improving the treatment of detainees in federal immigrant detainee centers. The new regulations are intended to make it easier for detainees to report instances of physical and sexual assault to prevent the abuse of a vulnerable population by the people who control every aspect of their lives.

Texas Representative Lamar Smith called the hearing “Holidays on ICE” and House Republicans took the chance to characterize the reforms as a lavish upgrade in accommodations:

"It's outrageous that immigration detention facilities have morphed into college campuses," said Rep. Elton Gallegy (R-Calif.). "Under this administration, detention looks more like recess," Smith proclaimed.

It is hard to believe that House Republicans’ sense of compassion has so thoroughly soured that they are now seriously advocating for human rights abuses. Much more likely they are attacking the source of the new reforms, The Obama Administration, and are inventing objections to suit the situation. This is life amidst the culture war, which increases the political divisions and tensions among the populace and provides no incentives for politicians to “reach across the aisle,” even on issues that should be solidly bipartisan.

Breeding hostility and distrust of the political opposition seems like it would be a smart way to negate their chances of winning reelection, but it also forces otherwise reasonable and intelligent people into indefensible positions. The migration of both parties away from the political center creates a toxic environment where ideas are no longer judged on their merits, but instead on what part of the political spectrum they originated from.

It seems that while individuals with opposing politics can and do find common ground on the issues that are most important to them, their elected representatives no longer can, and are in fact punished if they try.

This is not sustainable. All of us have a responsibility to arrest these schisms, if only to prevent our country from being sold out from under us. In a vacuum of common sense, opportunists thrive. Below are a few suggestions for changing the dialogue and elevating the discourse.

Stop thinking of your political opponents as evil

One of the basic precepts of the culture war is that one-half of the country is made up of rational people trying to make the most of their lot in life and the other half is full of evil traitors who want to destroy everything good in the world. This isn’t just damaging because it is inaccurate, it also makes it impossible for us to hear one another or understand the choices we make.

We fall easily into rhetorical brinkmanship, where opposition to the execution or terms of a political remedy is taken as tacit support of the thing it is meant to fix. When either side does this, it removes the incentive for compromise and allows legislators to blame the other side for political gridlock.

Hold those whose politics are congruent to your own to a higher standard

Oppositional thinking doesn’t just destroy compromise, it destroys accountability. Voters are so afraid of doing the other side’s work for them that they shy away from dissent. As engaged citizens, our duty to the political process isn’t simply to foster electoral victories along ideological lines, it is to keep our representatives honest.

A year or two ago, I found myself engaged in a discussion with a libertarian friend about the best ways to reduce the deficit. He brought up the scandalous size of then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s flower budget. This was the perfect time to show him that I was acting in good faith and share his outrage at the Speaker’s operational largess. Instead I expressed disbelief at the number that he quoted and suggested his sources were flawed — not my finest hour.

Shy away from disingenuous sources of information

If you discover a news channel or publication is guilty of malicious oversimplification or engages in hyperbolic rhetoric to grab your attention, find one with more rigorous honesty and nuance.

A person or organization who lies to you about your enemies will likely lie to you about your friends; when you give these sources page views or ratings you foster an environment where truth is jettisoned to make room for dogma. Pay attention to voices that are committed to telling uncomfortable truths, especially when they conflict your own sense of moral superiority.

Cutting through hidden agendas and motivations is difficult enough, there is no reason to waste your attention on demagogues of any stripe.

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