Tower of Babel: why we can’t talk across the divide

Andy SchmooklerMany have noticed that it has become unusually difficult, in recent years, for Americans to talk constructively across the political divide. One reason for this regrettable development has been a change in our nation’s media culture.In the America I grew up in, we all got our news from similar, basically trustworthy sources. The people I recall were such excellent journalists as Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC, and Walter Cronkite on CBS. Now, Americans have segmented themselves into audiences for different newscasts with different political slants.

 

That would not be a big problem — except for one thing. The people following these different sources of “news” are getting different sets of “facts.”

I relish conversation where we can get into the different values and principles that are emphasized in the different political worldviews. As I see it, both liberal and conservative principles are important for a healthy society. No camp has a monopoly on the moral truth. As I used to say on my radio shows in the Shenandoah Valley, “we should talk with each other as if we might actually learn from each other.”

But it’s different when we enter into the conversation with different, and mutually contradictory, sets of facts. While it can be educational for everyone to talk about different values and principles, if either side of a discussion is mistakenly convinced of the truth of “facts” that are actually false, good conversation becomes effectively impossible.

On almost every issue our country faces, we encounter this barrier of contradictory sets of facts — e.g. on whether this piece of legislation has created or killed jobs, on which policies promoted by which party have contributed to the national debt or helped reduce it, on what the science says about the climate.

Studies have shown that this problem is not a matter of “both sides do it.” It’s been shown, for example, that people who get their information from Fox News are far more likely than others to hold and vote on the basis of beliefs that are false. (Liberal America definitely has some important faults in our times, but systematic deception about the facts is not one of them.)

While a whole book could be written to establish that this problem — the division of our country into different political camps with different facts — is the fruit of the forces that have come to dominate the American right, that’s not my main point here.

Rather, I want to offer an interpretation of what the likely purpose is behind the erection of this barrier to our being able to communicate productively about the challenges we face as a people.

The biblical story of the Tower of Babel sheds light here. That story in the Bible demonstrates that one very effective way of preventing a community of people from achieving their common purposes is to make it impossible for those people to communicate meaningfully with each other.

We Americans have common purposes. The great majority of us want a government that looks out for the interests of average Americans, that protects the interest of the vast American middle class, that maintains the integrity of our democratic institutions that operate on the basis of “the consent of the governed,” of ”one person, one vote,” that respects “the rule of law.”

If we can act together, we will achieve these common purposes. And if we can talk constructively with each other, we will be able to act together.

But if there are elements in our society that want a different kind of America, THEIR aims will be served by preventing us from acting together. And to achieve that, just as in the story of the Tower of Babel, all they need to do is prevent us from talking constructively together.

One way to achieve that is to make sure that different groups have different sets of “facts.” The purveying of false “facts” is one major component of a strategy of “divide and conquer” that these powerful elements are waging against us, the American people.

Our Founders gave us a system of government — of self-government — that is predicated on the notion that our citizens will be able to talk productively about our politics. For that system to work, we need to make sure that we can establish a common factual basis for discussion.

To achieve that, in our times, we need to work harder to make sure that, in the world of news reporting, the truth defeats the lie.

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