By Paul V. DeMarco
Guess how the two friends I’m about to describe voted in the 2020 presidential election.
The first is an older white male. One of his vehicles is a 1999 Ford F-150 pick-up whose radio is tuned to a country station. His gun safe contains a 12-gauge shotgun, a 20-gauge shotgun, and a pistol. He attends church almost every week and believes Jesus Christ is his Savior. He has the Fox News app on his phone. He favors robust border security. He thinks it unfair for transgender women to compete in collegiate and professional sports against cis-gender women.
The second is also an older white male, roughly the same age as the first. He drives a Ford Escape in which he generally listens to podcasts like NPRs “Fresh Air.” He has the Washington Post app on his phone. He believes in reasonable gun regulation, including registration of firearms with state governments. He comes from a family of immigrants – his grandfather emigrated from Sicily after World War I. He supports diversity, equity, and inclusion in all phases of society.
If you guessed the first voted for Trump and the second voted for Biden, you would be… wrong. Those two paragraphs both describe me. I drive the Escape most days but have the pick-up, a gift from my father-in-law, for hauling. Like most of America, I have nuanced views on guns, immigration, the transgender community, and the role of faith. I listen to many different types of music and get my news from multiple sites.
As to whom I voted for – it’s Biden. Trump is an inveterate liar and a danger to the country.
But the subject of this column is not Trump or Biden. It’s our tendency to pigeonhole. Let’s try another example in the form of a decades-old riddle I first heard in medical school: A father and son have a car accident and are both badly hurt. They are both taken to separate hospitals where they are immediately prepped for surgery. When the boy is wheeled into the OR, the surgeon looks down at him and says, “I can’t operate on him. This is my son.” How is this possible?
The answer is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother. Don’t worry if you missed it. I did too when I first heard it almost forty years ago. Over the past couple months, I have been retelling it to groups of young people to see if their answers are any more astute than mine was. I have queried a group of nurses, a group of medical students, and a group of teenagers, perhaps fifty young people in all. All the groups were primarily female and the vast majority were stumped. I was surprised that our collective mental image of a surgeon is still so strongly masculine, even among young women, some of whom are destined to become surgeons themselves.
Eventually, I hope, no one will be fooled by this riddle, as the idea of a female surgeon will be top of mind. Indeed, the way that women are outpacing men in many academic fields, including medicine, we may eventually reach the point where we can tell the riddle in reverse about a mother and a son.
But when it comes to politics, rather than harmful stereotypes being slowly eroded, our media environment depends on shoring them up and exaggerating them in a relentless drive for clicks. Each side reduces the other to a humiliating caricature, shown in the worst possible light. Because social media’s hyperpartisan atmosphere vastly overstates the extremism of both the right and the left, our worldview becomes more and more skewed.
This is why I write. I know better than anyone that there are more knowledgeable and more skilled columnists out there. But because so few of them speak to the middle ground, I feel obligated to plant a flag there. My big advantage is that I write for free, so I have no incentive to overstate to stoke anger.
I’ll end with the words of Martin Buber, who unsurprisingly, is rarely invoked in today’s political commentary. Buber was a Jewish philosopher who framed relationships as “I-Thou,” in which a person opens himself fully to another to achieve a connection, or “I-It,” in which a person encounters another as an object or instrument to be used and discarded. Almost without exception, when we meet people different from ourselves, we adopt an I-It posture.
Buber encourages us to instead choose the I-Thou posture, which he believed could occur instantaneously, in any circumstance, even between strangers. One easy place to practice is the grocery store. As you wait in line, imagine the cashier as a complete human being, who has a home, family, hopes and anxieties just like you. Try it with as many people as you can, especially those with whom you disagree.
This can be hard with a vicious somebody on social media. A couple of remedies are available. First, spend less time on social media. Second, wish your antagonist well and move on. There are too many thoughtful, interesting people out there to waste your time with someone who treats you like an “It” rather than a “Thou.”
A version of this column appeared in the August 8th edition of the Florence Morning News.