Ever since Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito's draft opinion on abortion was leaked and our divided country has been torn further apart, I've been daydreaming about what would happen if Martians attacked. That would be a bad thing, of course, but I fixate on the one good development that might come from it: We humans wouldn't think twice about uniting to defeat a common enemy.
And maybe, just maybe, after that shared foe retreated, the memory of how it felt to stand side by side, ignore our differences and appreciate each other would linger, and we'd be less likely to demonize one another in the future.
But then I think: Dream on.
It's a common trope in social media to say "I'm old enough to remember when ... " (Usually, the phrase is deployed cheekily, to underscore a change that happened a day earlier.) But if you're older than a Millennial, you likely can recall a time when Americans weren't so primed to regard those with different world views as irredeemable.
Growing up a Baby Boomer, I heard plenty of bitter arguments — often at my own dinner table — over issues like drugs, abortion rights and the Vietnam War. But if memory serves, it was rare for people to define themselves by their positions, pledge allegiance to Team Red vs. Team Blue, City vs. Rural, North vs. South, Liberal vs. Conservative, and assume that their opinions on everything were equally worthless.
Funny thing is, most Americans say they share a disgust for this phenomenon. In a Public Agenda/USA Today poll published last December, nearly three out of four surveyed said it would be good for the country if their fellow Americans were to "reject political hostility and divisiveness and focus more on their common ground." But they were equally pessimistic this would happen.
Causes are easy to find. Politicians fundraise off outrage. Social media thrives on passion-driven clicks. Tribalism makes us feel secure during a time of dramatic change. It's easier to reject compromise and stop thinking than to get to yes, whether in politics, work or our private lives.
Cures, meanwhile, seem to be in equally short supply.
I was thinking about this while in South Carolina on vacation in late December. My husband and I had ridden our bikes to a popular outdoor Hilton Head restaurant, and while waiting for a table, a tall, elderly man wearing head-to-toe camo and an NRA cap walked past us on his way to a table. We didn't even have to exchange words for my blood pressure to rise and my mind race with what I'd like to tell him about gun safety.
My fight or flight response felt uncomfortable, the same way it feels to read the latest outrage on Twitter. But — maybe because I was on vacation and it was a beautiful day — I breathed deeply and reminded myself that I didn't know anything about this man, except that we were on opposite sides of this one issue. He might be a proud grandfather, like to fish, have served in the military ... The possibilities were endless.
And that's a good thing, because the world would be a much sadder, more boring place if people were really as one-dimensional as our prejudices make them out to be. I once took a fiction-writing class and was told that the best way to make characters realistic is to add at least one counterintuitive feature to their personalities — an accountant who gambles, or a judge who is paralyzed by menu choices. I've found that if you listen to people long enough, you'll find everyone has inconsistencies that make them harder to peg — and a lot more interesting.
We're all cases in point. I grew up in politically red Missouri, but have lived my adult life in blue New Jersey. I am old enough to remember the excitement of a new Beatles album, yet I love the music of Parquet Courts, Tame Impala and countless other alternative artists. I was raised in a family that was intensely anti-union; now I belong to one. I'm a fast writer and a slow reader. What does this all make me? Human, I think.
At that restaurant in Hilton Head, I decided to challenge myself to come up with two or three things the NRA supporter and I have in common. We both had to like seafood, because we chose to go to the Salty Dog for lunch. We both wanted to eat outside in the fresh air. The man walked arm in arm with his wife, so they appeared to have a close relationship, as I do with my husband. Going through this mental exercise made me stop thinking of the man as a symbol, and he became a person again, receding into the colorful crowd enjoying the outdoors on a glorious day in the South.
Since then, I've asked myself "What don't I know about this person?", and had some satisfying conversations exploring commonality with others. A work colleague with political views the polar opposite of mine, it happens, does tremendous volunteer work after hours. He disagrees with me on big issues, but tells me he knows I love my country.
I'm not saying that politics should be a third rail in polite conservation. I feel strongly about what I think are bad ideas and policies in the public arena, and I believe those ideas and policies can and should be defeated through discussion. But that can't happen if we dismiss everyone who is persuadable on one issue because we disagree on another. Besides, finding common ground is a lot more fun than fighting over it.
Cindy Schweich Handler is the editor of Montclair and Wayne Magazines, and a writer for The Record and Northjersey.com. Email: Handler@northjersey.com; Twitter: @CindyHandler
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Tired of living in a divided country? Change begins with you