This blog was written by a current fellow on the Yahel Social Change Fellowship, who wishes to remain anonymous in this blogpost.
As an American citizen abroad, I feel an “absentee” status in many ways beyond my diligently mailed-in ballot. Here, I share some semi-organized thoughts about following American politics from afar, how I consider it in the context of learning in Israel, and why I think psychologists should probably be in charge of a lot more things.
Before I left the U.S. for Israel, my life was saturated with political intake. CNN in the background constantly, podcasts filling any quiet moment, I would diligently research folks running for office and keep track of their policies and promises. A half-hearted start to an application essay for midterm work with the DCCC still sits in my Google drive, a remnant of my vague backup plan if a meaningful program in Israel didn’t work out. When I landed in the Holy Land, news coverage was quickly consumed by the Kavanaugh saga, which I watched in a numbed-out daze in barely tolerable YouTube clips, my stomach twisting for those living through it back in America. Following the U.S. news from abroad continues to feel blurry. I often wonder how it feels to actually live in New York City right now on campus at my alma mater, a women’s college. What about my old neighborhood in Boston, full of immigrants? What about the churches I was raised in, so focused on interfaith communication and outreach? It seems like everything is erupting and so many in America are hurting right now as they feel a loss of control over their life - all over the spectrum of political ideology. But I also wonder if the pervading sense of fury or weariness is being channeled in any productive way. As the next presidential election inches closer, I cringe at the emerging emotion-laden ads. With all respect to the senator, why should I care that Elizabeth Warren serves a cozy meal at her home to children? Why do politicians, female leaders in particular, have to parade around selling their relatability and likeability? The way I understand this, politicians need to assure their constituents of their similar moral and ethical character, so that said constituent feels comfortable that the decisions their leader makes in office will be in line with their values. But how often do presidents really make decisions based on personal ethics alone? Their moves are informed by not just advisors but their constituents wishes, at best, and electability, at worst.
This writing is jumbled because so is my brain, at least with regard to politics. I can’t tell if everything in America is falling apart or if a stronger movement is building. I don’t know if careful and compassionate listening truly works to close divisions, but I know that screaming and shaming someone into a different view probably never has. I’m bitter that I felt like my college, full of intelligent young people, fostered a “call-out” culture of humiliation and division, rather than using its immense resources to train leaders in communication and true listening. I don’t understand why we frequently ignore the huge body of research in psychology regarding group-think, partisanship, and how deeply entrenched polarization can be slowly unwound. In Israel, I can obviously see similar patterns of division and the resulting conflicting views of the best version of society. It still makes my head spin to consider the ramifications of the separate education systems here; children being given both separate and different educations based on their background is a right families are entitled to exercise. But it builds adults who have no interaction with or education about the “other,” which actively prohibits communication between groups and inspires no interest in exploring diversity as a tool for a stronger future. But how can I criticize Israel so harshly when the United States informally follows the same route? We all know that the quality of education depends on your socioeconomic status, but it’s ridiculous to me that it can determine the content of your education as well. An oversimplified example - if children in the south are taught in their federally funded public schools that immigrants are coming to hurt their families and their futures, why are we confused when an adult emerges with what I label as toxic and racist opinions towards Central Americans approaching the border to seek asylum? It’s overwhelming to think about how to address education as the root cause of current political strife in America, as I believe it to be. But I’m annoyed by the baffled news anchors self-righteously slamming the rural Republican male voter, when we are all complicit in a system producing him.
I haven’t reached any conclusions in writing this, nor did I intend to. But I think that anyone wanting a more equitable society for all people, either in the United States or Israel, needs to seriously and logically consider the root causes of discord between community groups that inhibit progressive growth. We need to listen to the people who make it their life’s work to understand decision-making and group allegiance behaviors, and when we are given those opportunities to listen to people we disagree with, we need to do it. Asking questions needs to be followed by actual respectful listening, even if we don’t like what we hear. I’m confused, angry, and sad, but I see no practicality in screaming at my differently-minded neighbor. People are complicated, but mostly good. I hope we can all think more deeply about these conflicts and get through the heart-thudding anger of political disagreements to find a steady voice. It’s the only sustainable way forward.
Pictured, Donald Trump modeling poor communication skills