Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The opposite of me

In my never-ending movement towards becoming a bigger and bigger geek (at 5 feet, two inches tall, I can only get bigger in this kind of way), I have completely become a National Public Radio listener. It's really my husband's fault: he bought me an iPod for Christmas, a device I never asked for, and instead of using it for music, I've begun downloading NPR news shows, interviews and "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me."

An interview with Bill Bishop really caught my attention. He's a journalist and author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart.

According to Bishop, Americans are increasingly interacting only with people who think like them. For instance, people have an increasing tendency to move into neighborhoods of people who vote similarly, live similarly and see the world similarly. We tend to have friends that all agree on values, goals and in what direction the country should go. Of course, people have always done this, but not to the extent to which we do today.

He points to this social pattern as the reason that our presidential elections have become so bitter. If one in two people is a Democrat and the other is a Republican, you might think that would make our country pretty well balanced, and yet we've had two of the most polarized elections in history. According to Bishop, this is because, while our population is pretty evenly divided between left and right, we have moved into tighter and tighter huddles. Since it's been proven that, over time, people who think alike tend to reinforce either others' thinking, the more time we spend in these clusters, the fewer ideas we have in common with people we see as "other." So, the farther and farther apart we get, physically as well as ideologically.

Apparently it's worse in urban/suburban areas. In rural areas where there aren't as many people, you tend to take the neighbors you get. There might be a mile or more in between homes and people don't come and go as much. Whoever ends up living near you becomes someone you find a way to get along with, regardless of their personal beliefs. In the city, with its dense, highly mobile populations, people look for markers that indicate that this is a neighborhood that will welcome them: coffee shops, people wearing Birkenstocks or lots of dogs being walked for some; for others the markers might be houses with large lawns and nice cars.

So I'm thinking about my friends and the people I'm close to and I'm realizing that I am totally one of these people who only likes people who are like me. I have almost no Republican friends and certainly no friends who are outspoken about conservative beliefs. I'm part of the problem.

I ask myself: am I content to be part of the splintering of America? Or would I like to try to be part of the healing? If I were to try to be part of the patching-up process, what would that entail? Maybe it's time to get some Republican friends.

I'd been considering doing some more volunteering with the Obama campaign, but maybe that's going in the wrong direction. Maybe I'd like to volunteer with the MCCAIN campaign just to take myself out of my usual sphere of social interaction. I wonder how that would be: meeting conservative Republicans, finding the things we have in common, making peace with those who think differently from me.

Making peace with those who have different beliefs and finding what we have in common. Am I brave enough? Is anyone?

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