Hi everyone, I’m Bill Shireman. With my colleague and friend, Trammell Crow, we find ourselves politically homeless.
We are not alone—as we look around—we find that there are millions of people like ourselves. In fact, we are the single largest political block in the country, but we don’t know it because we are divided in two. The business of politics and media has divided the great 70 percent center of the country, from the right to the left, into two separate echo chambers and egged us into battle. A culture war so intense, some of us call it the second civil war. It hasn’t become violent—for the most part, yet—but it’s closer than we think, and that’s why we wrote a book together: In This Together.
It’s a story of how conservatives, progressives, capitalists, and activists, out of view of politics and media are now working together across our divides to actually solve problems like covid, climate change, criminal justice, and declining educational standards. It’s a story about working to bring back the working middle class and spread opportunity more widely so that income and wealth and the ability to prosper by being who we are is more broadly expanded.
Now, it’s the holidays, again.
If you are like me, you can’t believe that we are putting down and taking up and putting down and taking up our Halloween decorations, Thanksgiving, and New years decorations, while welcoming a new family into the White House. That’s a problem for about half of us. Many of us will be experiencing that problem with the family meals we are going to sit down to virtually this year, around each of these holidays. It used to be sage advice that we don’t talk about religion and we don’t talk politics around these family dinners. But that’s harder and harder to do these days, because of all the turkeys that dominate our headlines—far on the left and far on the right. Some of these turkeys are right there at the tables with us when we sit down to these dinners.
It’s even true in my family which is pretty moderate politically. But while we are moderate, we do have our political leanings, and when it comes time to carve the turkey, the knives do come out. My brother, for example, likes the left wing. My brother-in-law is more fond of the right wing. I am more in the middle; when it comes to turkey, I am a breast man. I naturally seek the middle, so in our dinner conversations, since most of the family is a little bit to the left, my contrarian self naturally has to fill in the perspective from the right. That’s when things can get hot. In my family—and in your family—and, in virtually every American family, we are living in two different worlds defined by our politics and defined by our media. We have an echo chamber on the left and an echo chamber on the right. And the political and media industries have learned that we are easiest to manage if we are sealed off in those echo chambers.
When we are in the left echo chamber, we hear the most objectionable ugly things that the folks on the furthest of the right have to say and it scares us into the seemingly well-founded belief that everyone over there is crazy and it pushes us a little further to the left.
Those of us in the echo chamber on the right, hear only the most insulting, inane, and insane rantings of the folks on the far left and that pushes us further to the authoritarian right. This is the basis of a lot of conversations and arguments—violent agreements I call them—between our family members when we get together. A big part of the reason is inside our echo chambers is that we use many of the same words, but they have opposing meanings. Conservative, progressive, capitalist, freedom, justice, even the word American itself are defined in starkly contrasting terms inside the two echo chambers. So, I find myself arguing on behalf of capitalism—a system of free enterprise that I love—because my capitalism allows millions of people to start small businesses and enterprises and to express our creative and productive capacities and to serve another’s needs; and, I am arguing against someone whose definition of capitalism is the concentration of power in a deep corporatist state that takes freedom away from people, something that I am fundamentally opposed to. I call that socialism. That’s how it’s defined in my echo chamber on the right. But, my idea of small scale locally baaed enterprises is more what other family and friends think they mean when they say socialism, much different from the Venuzualidan model of crony authoritarianism or Chinese state corporatism, or Soviet totalitarianism that pops into my mind when the term socialism is used.
Since we are all being triggered by these terms that have been idealized and demonized in our two chambers, how do we engage in a meal together this holiday season and understand and feel each other so we don’t deepen the divide?
My friend Robin Koerner has a solution. We talk about it in a video you can click to HERE. Robin when asked if he is a conservative, progressive, Republican, or Democrat, answers “I am a Humilitarian.” Robin has launched the website and the group, humilitarian.us. His philosophy and approach is to get out of this cycle of cross demonization, we all need to embrace three principles:
That sounds nice, but it’s a little tough to do for those of us who are only human, so here’s a combination of Robin’s recommendations and mine for when you get together with family and friends this holiday.
Don’t avoid politics. It’s impossible. Instead, take this holiday as an opportunity to really listen and hear what folks from the opposing echo chamber are saying. When I can snuff my fuse out after I have been triggered, and hear what my friends and family are saying, I quickly realize that their views are more reasonable than I thought, and that our opinions are close. Not identical, but the differences are important. We all live inside a political and media system that with no central organizing authority has turned all of us into products for sale to advertisers and vested interests. We have created these echo chambers through our social media clicks and remote control channel changing habits. Our media pretends to be free, but they are not, they are paid for by the companies who want to sell us their products and their services and by the interest groups that want to convince us of their ideas. Most of them don’t want us divided from one another into warring camps of political and ideological enemies; it just happens to be a very simple effective way to corral us together into segmented audiences that can be sold.
Using big data analytics, the machines that are programmed with the algorithms that drive our social media habits know exactly what to say to trigger our fear. When we are afraid, we consume. We look for something missing in our lives, something we imagine we have to bring into our lives to be safe and satisfied and we get out our iPhone and click on our favorite stores and products and consume them. But fear is a very dangerous and uncomfortable feeling to have. So quickly when we feel fear we convert it into anger. Fear feels destabilizing. Anger gives us a sense of grounding. We are mad. Something has come to threaten us and our brains have learned to find that enemy and shut down our empathy so we can revert to pure hatred which enables us to kill. In six million years living in tribes, we learned to turn off our empathy and turn on our hatred so we could protect our families and our communities. Now we tricked ourselves.
When you find your anger triggered, practice pausing. Realize that the person who triggered you, have themselves been triggered. Something scared them, caused them to become angry and to direct some of their anger your way—intentionally or not. Here’s where free will comes in. we can choose; I can choose, you can choose to defuse your trigger and actively empathize, actively hear what the other person is saying and feel some of the anger and fear that they feel. When we do, we will find ourselves connected, heart to heart and we will realize that in some way we are one. We are a family. Then we can express the same fears that they feel and come to an understanding. They won’t care what we know until they know we care. And we won’t care what they know until we know that they care. And then the wisdom of the left and the wisdom of the right can be joined together and we can understand the mission of conservatives to protect what is sacred in our lives and show gratitude for everything we have and the mission of the left to aspire to everything we can be and to sweep away the limits and forces of oppression that can block our path are two paths that only function in a healthy way when we are together.
We are all in this together. This holiday, that the opportunity to practice American democracy at a level that’s higher than you ever have before. We have seen how low this illusion of democracy can take us, now we can aspire to be what the right reads in our constitution and what the left wishes to help us manifest. Enjoy the holidays, appreciate what we have, and what we can become.
BILL: Hi everyone! I am Bill Shireman. I am the co-founder with my partner in politics and the environment – Trammell S Crow – in In This Together.
In This Together is an initiative to help to bring together the country once again from our incredible political civil war, which seems to have divided us into alternative camps.
One of the toughest times to deal with, for us as a country, and this is when it gets to be the holidays.
And it is the holidays again – hard as it is to believe.
When we get together for our family meals, the advice that has proven useful for generations: “don’t talk about politics or religion”.
It still seems like a good idea but frankly as we approach this holiday there are so many ‘political turkeys’ on the far right and the far left with strong views that just don’t get long.
It’s hard not to talk about politics. It’s just gonna come up.
This has been challenging for me as an individual. In our family get togethers (we’ll be doing it virtually this year) – my family is mostly kind of political moderates, but we’re intense moderates.
We care deeply and we do have leanings – my brother, his favorite piece is the left wing and my brother-in-law (my sister’s husband), he prefers the right wing. I’m kind of in the middle so I’m more of a breast man myself.
We have differences but I’m a contrarian and I tend to argue a little bit more with people and I’ll always take the position that’s not represented at the table so since our conversations kind of lean left for the most part, I kind of lean right and that gets me into deep trouble and we’ve had some kind of difficult conversation. So today we have an expert who has found some ways to deal with this and I think he’ll be very useful to me and my family and to you and your family as well. Robin Kerner. Robin, you are a “humilitarian”, correct?
ROBIN: I am. I identify as a humilitarian, exactly.
BILL: Tell us how that came about. How did you become a humilitarian – the first humilitarian on the planet? And what’s happening now in the humilitarian movement as it grows?
ROBIN: Yeah it’s just launched and I think it’s fair to say that it’s something that I’ve been kind of working on in the back of my mind for over a year. In fact, as I’ve watched the United States become increasingly politically divided and polarized and tribal, I’m starting to to notice over the last few years that poll after poll, survey after survey are showing that a large majority of Americans realize the way we’re doing politics is broken. The politics itself is not only not delivering what it’s supposed to deliver, it’s kind of doing the opposite. You’ve got literally hundreds of millions of Americans who would like it to be different but they see no way out. It’s like they go to the ballot box, let’s say, and they still just have the two big options.
BILL: And we are baffled by each other in this right? I mean the people that I talk to – I work with both liberals and conservatives and I have good deep friendships with people that I love on both sides and they’re both completely baffled by the other right now. They say, “how could 70+ million people vote for that guy?”. They both realize that there’s maybe a problem with both of the candidates that we recently chose between but they just can’t see how 70+ million Americans can vote either for somebody that they think is either going to walk us into socialism or somebody that they think is going to walk us into authoritarianism or maybe already has. They’re just confused. How do you deal with that now?
ROBIN: So now I should back up a little bit more because what I’ve been doing for about the last decade is working as a Political Psychologist and the thing that really kind of most interests me is in a way the question you’ve just asked me. This idea that what we already know, even if it’s wrong, so you could say what we already believe, determines what we perceive. I don’t know how we interpret what we’ve received. This is tested in laboratories over and over again now but it actually determines how we collect data about the world. There’s some fantastic examples of this in empirical psychology and now neurologically we even understand the ways that we can. We really do live in different worlds. A committed republican, let’s say, a committed Democrat, they really experience the same things, the same phenomena, quite differently. So you get this situation of people talking past each other all the time. You mentioned the Thanksgiving holidays, sitting with the family at the top of this chat they have, and so in that closed environment, that’s what begins to happen. One person says something, lays out a position. Another person lays out another position. They talk past each other. Not only if anything do you not persuade the other person, you probably just caused them to become more entrenched in the position that they initially expounded, right? We see it all the time. So what does that get us?
BILL: We have violent agreements on issues so often and I feel like I’m saying something that they agree with and they’re yelling at me. And then they’re saying something that I agree with and I’m yelling at them and I’m not sure where all that comes from. So what’s the approach? How can we raise ourselves to be humilitarians when we have dinner and conversations with people that we love, who are stuck inside different echo chambers, hearing different versions of the reality?
ROBIN: Okay, so let me start to answer that by saying what this word means: humilitarian. Because it’s kind of a new word. So it means to be committed to principles of discourse and treatment of others with whom we disagree. If you go more fundamental than our political views, the kind of matter to politics, it’s a way we’re going to do politics and discuss politics and think about political ideas. And if you’re a humilitarian, you say that commitment is more important than my progressivism or my conservatism in as much as if we are in either of those camps, and we can be. We could be a republican or a democratic or a libertarian – whatever it might be. With humilitarianism, it’s the cure for tribalism. So if you’re a Democrat and I’m a Republican, we are likely to encounter each other through those tribal labels and so we’ve got that distrust. So that even if even if we do agree at some level on something, as you say it might be a violent agreement, it might be that I’m coming at you, I’m listening to what you say so that I can refute it because that’s what the labels are inviting me to do. Humilitarian Democrat, like a humilitarian Republican says you don’t have to distrust each other. It says that what we’re really doing is coming at a shared problem from different perspectives but it is a shared problem. We’re going to treat each other’s views with an open mind. We’re going to treat our own views with humility. We’re going to remember that there’s something that we don’t know about the world. We’re going to remember that if we had different experiences, we may ourselves come to different opinions right. So we take responsibility.
BILL: So here’s the practical challenge that I find. The reality today is we are literally, as you said earlier, we’re living in different worlds – different media worlds, constructed media worlds – that we’ve actually constructed for ourselves based on how we click, right? Because the algorithms of social media have been perfected in some ways by big data analytics to track exactly what we’re doing at all times online and to put in front of us those messages that we are most likely to click at, at any one time. So that they can then display the advertisements that we are most likely to subconsciously or consciously register as a consequence. So we’re living in these worlds and these two worlds have a different language but they haven’t told us that there’s a different language. They have words that mean entirely different things on the two sides… [watch the full conversation here].