By Martha Quillen
‘Tis the season to look back at the past year and make resolutions for the next, but given the amount of violence and political discord in 2017, what sort of resolution is apropos? We could all promise to exercise, eat better, work harder and get more organized, and if we actually accomplish those things, it will be wonderful, not to mention astounding. But given the animosity that’s tearing our country into partisan pieces, is self-improvement enough? Or are we in need of far greater reforms?
In 2017, television networks, emails, Internet sites, Facebook and tweets hemorrhaged inconsistent news and views, many of which were exaggerated or downright wrong. And there were protests for and against gun control; for and against a border wall; for and against the President; for and against NFL players kneeling to protest racism. In fact, protests became so common, a number of states and Congress tried to legislate against them (and a few states actually have).
During the last few years, Southerners have been struggling to toss some of their romanticized past in order to improve race relations, and the South isn’t the only region struggling with change. I spent Thanksgiving with some Denverites who were worried about how the extraordinary growth, soaring housing prices and development disputes in their city were fueling animosity. And lawsuits have become de rigueur in Salida politics.
Conflict, however, is normal and actually considered essential to democratic systems. Competition inspires interest, ideas and participation. In recent years, however, conflicts have gotten so oppositional that our Democratic governments function about as well as shattered snow globes.
That’s what’s happening in Washington today. One side is under investigation, the other is charging that the President is unfit for office, and neither side pays much attention to the concerns of the opposition. Instead, citizens appear to be so horrified by one another’s views regarding politics, commerce and violence that public animus has gotten more problematical than government spending.
Take shootings, for example; some people see them as a gun issue, some as an indication of moral decline, and some as a failure of law and order. Whatever the cause, violence has become all too common; yet Americans aren’t inclined to address the problem together.
In 1999, Columbine was the worst school shooting on record and the fifth-deadliest mass-shooting since WWII. Today all of those shootings have been eclipsed. This year 58 people were killed at a Las Vegas concert, and last year 49 at an Orlando nightclub. In a November 2017 New York Times article recapping this information, reporter Maggie Astor wrote, “But amid the horror and fear, a central emotion seen after Columbine seems to be missing: surprise.”
On university campuses today, students want trigger warnings to alert them if material may be emotionally wrenching; and safe spaces, in which unpleasant topics are forbidden; and the end of microaggressions, which are those everyday quips and snubs that can be perceived as negative or derogatory. Some critics characterize such demands as a threat to free speech and liberty, and they have a point. But this movement for vigilant sensitivity strikes me as iconic and significant.
Yes, it’s over-the-top to try to keep professors from talking about unpleasant realities. But as I see it, millennials are merely reflecting something most of us feel: modern society is so given to anger, arguments, bad news, violence, corruption, mean-spirited politicking, lies, exaggerations, unsolicited advice and warnings, that it’s assaultive.
So how did peace turn into a battlefield issue? Easily enough. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the primary partisan split in the American population was generational. A post-war baby boom meant an enormous percentage of young voters were coming of age, and a lot of them were not enthused about marching off to an ideological war in a place they knew almost nothing about. Vietnam was not like their father’s war; the enemy hadn’t bombed the American fleet. And Southeast Asia was not like France or England. American kids had not grown up watching movies about honeymooning in Saigon or solving mysteries in the foggy Mekong Delta.
Baby boomers were like most American generations; they hiked up their skirts and flaunted old-fashioned rules. But the ’60s flummoxed mature adults, perhaps because Hollywood and modern commerce inundated America with youthful trends in a way never seen before. Surfing, bikinis, mini-skirts, boys with long hair, peace signs, drugs, sex, nudity, psychedelic art and music that thrilled the young and sickened conservatives proliferated.
When I was in junior high, my friends and I happened upon an early peace march in Washington D.C., and saw young men from San Francisco with hair down to their waist. Even the Beatles only had shoulder-length hair then, and we didn’t know what to make of them, but the West Coast influence and peace marches just kept getting bigger and bigger.
By the late ’60s I was in Denver, where there were huge rallies. And there were riots in Boulder, and young people engaged in fist fights and shouting matches pretty much everywhere, as the ideological divisions between soldiers, hippies, Greeks, working class youngsters and cowboys proliferated. In those days, college kids sewed peace signs onto their army surplus jackets, and campuses were festooned with posters, banners and bumper stickers exalting peace.
At marches, sit-ins, love-ins and be-ins, “Make Love Not War” was a rallying call. Police dispersed crowds. Protesters got arrested. And I repeatedly found myself pondering America’s dual devotion to peace and violence. And I find myself musing about that again every Christmas. Why are the citizens of the nation with the greatest nuclear arsenal so fond of Christmas carols and images eulogizing peace? What exactly do we mean by peace? And how should we honor it?
From the time of Troy to the nuclear age, civilizations have praised peace – and repeatedly broken it. And I suspect that’s because we are ambivalent about whether peace is really such a good and noble path. Peace is static, neutral and non-aggressive, and Americans are ambitious, acquisitive, enterprising and passionate.
Oh, sure, we want those other people to be peaceful. But ourselves? Most of us believe in putting our principles first, standing up to tyranny, and refusing to be bullied. Yet we surely need some measure of peace and understanding, and could definitely use more serenity and equanimity in our society.
So why do we seem to be moving in the other direction?
Business managers, marriage counselors and diplomats all try to help people get along, and some of their tips make it obvious where American politics go wrong. To avoid conflict, Dr. John Gottman, a relationships expert, warns against using insults or body language to show contempt, and against getting defensive and seeing yourself as a victim. And a New York State Wellness Program says “attack the problem, not the person,” and recommends you express your concerns without blaming others. A Stanford University site says realize you might be wrong and don’t overestimate your own ability or stance. And Forbes Magazine says don’t jump to wrong conclusions about the people you’re negotiating with. And it goes on and on; the advice we’re ignoring is extensive.
I’m not even going to pretend I follow all of that advice, or even half of it. But I’m hoping that thinking more about conflict resolution in the year to come may help me, and others, refrain from unintentionally increasing our dissension. Because surely peace would stand a better chance if we could discuss it without fighting.
Martha Quillen extends holiday greetings from Salida: May peace be with you, yours, and our country in the New Year.