The Divided States of America

American culture circa 2011: Land of the partisans, home of the tribes.

We are a nation divided – by religion, by politics, by sexual mores, by attitudes toward food, climate change, science, land ownership and business, and so much more. We gravitate toward those who share most, if not all, of our views and opinions, and away from those who are different from us. Our nation really began as a collection of tribes (the basis of our federal system), and we have returned to this state ideologically.

On its face, finding like-minded people is a good thing. It allows us to feel like we belong. Being with people who share our taste in books, agree with us on health care legislation, go to the same church, live in our neighborhood, or work in our profession is comforting. People unite for causes and rally together for change. But, they also band together to inflict harm and dispense hate.

Seth Godin says that people thought the internet would be a great homogenizing influence, yet it has done more to help people form silos and band together with others of similar thinking than any other technology or tool in recent memory.

When we can understand opposing beliefs, even if we don’t embrace them, we can still function as a group, while our tribes form supportive, yet minor, internal cliques. Managing this balance is what makes a tolerant and unified society, but on many significant topics, our beliefs are so unyielding, so far from the middle, that our tribes clash furiously. As warring tribes, we can’t function as a group to solve our society’s problems and move forward.

In the Name of God…

Religion permeates everyday life in a multitude of ways, causing tension and strife between those who embrace its influence in every aspect of their lives, and those who believe it doesn’t belong in schools, government or the workplace. Religious and political lines divide us over many issues, including abortion rights and birth control, gay rights and same sex marriage, education, science, medicine and even climate change.

Although legislation has kept them separate for years, religion is creeping into public schools. Religious student groups are forming on campuses and handing out Bibles. The law says that students can express religious beliefs as long as they do not disrupt class or school activities, however schools must remain neutral, neither endorsing nor interfering with religious practices.

Religion can be deeply embedded in family culture. The range of religious involvement spans the spectrum from students spearheading religious groups on campus, to students who have faith, but keep it out of school, to students who simply don’t believe and just want to attend school without religious undertones.

One tribe believes in an entity that is all-knowing and all-forgiving, while the other believes that there is no heaven, everyone is accountable for their own actions and no deity will confer forgiveness. Children brought up to have faith often can’t comprehend children whose families do not, and ostracize those children due to their nonbelief. At the same time, students who are devoutly religious can also experience ridicule.

An extreme example of religious intolerance is the recent mass shooting in Oslo, Norway, where Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik bombed a federal building in Oslo, killing seven people, before traveling to a youth camp that espoused multiculturalism principles and shooting 86 adults and teenagers, resulting in 93 dead and 96 injured. Breivik wrote a 1,500 page manifesto about his Christian views and values, and viciously denounced multiculturalism in Europe. He also traversed the internet raging against Muslims and Islam. Breivik has confessed to carrying out the bombing and shooting, but maintains that he was absolutely justified in his actions to save Europe from encroaching Islam. Although European leaders condemned his actions, The New York Times reports that there has been a steady increase in extreme right-wing groups and sentiment in Europe. Here at home, media outlets like Fox News and conservative radio foment further resentment and division.

No, You Are Not Allowed to Make Decisions About Your Body

Abortion and birth control have been two of the most divisive issues in our culture for several decades, with the tide turning against abortion rights with the recent wave of state legislation limiting, abusing and nearly abolishing them in many states. This might be the most precarious time for Roe v. Wade since it was passed in 1973, and the battles are heating up.

Recently legislation has been proposed that requires women to wait three days and submit to counseling from a biased, unlicensed counselor before getting an abortion, prove that her miscarriage was organic vs. induced, and get abortion insurance in case she is impregnated during a rape, to name a few bills on the landscape attacking a woman’s right to have an abortion. The divide goes nearly straight down the political aisle, pitting Democrats against Republicans in an ongoing feud.

The battle doesn’t stop at abortion. Birth control is under fire, too. Recently, in the context of talking about climate change, Al Gore said,

“One of the things we could do about it is to change the technologies, to put out less of this pollution, to stabilize the population, and one of the principal ways of doing that is to empower and educate girls and women. You have to have ubiquitous availability of fertility management so women can choose how many children to have, the spacing of the children. You have to lift child-survival rates so that parents feel comfortable having small families. And most important, you have to educate girls and empower women. And that’s the most powerful leveraging factor, and when that happens, then the population begins to stabilize and societies begin to make better choices and more balanced choices.” (h/t Grist)

Conservative writers immediately characterized Gore’s speech as instructing families to have fewer children to help the environment, and used it to underline extreme conservative agendas against birth control. In a video clip in Grist’s article, Texas State Rep. Wayne Christian states, “Well of course it’s a war on birth control.”

This is an issue that clashing tribes will never come to a consensus on. Whichever viewpoint is currently legally right will always be hammered on by the opposing one. The fight will go on indefinitely.

Same Sex Marriages are Not Real

The battle over same sex marriage and gay rights, including health benefits, medical power of attorney, and equal treatment with heterosexual unions has been ongoing. Individual states have granted legality to same sex marriages and then taken it away, while the measure comes to ballot in other states and is voted down. Some corporations offer same sex benefits, while state and federal governments take it away.

The very definition of marriage is at stake, and until recently, neither side wanted to concede. However, New York passed a same-sex marriage law in 2011 (which was previously voted down), becoming the largest state to do so, to date.  Republican Senator Mark J. Grisanti, who campaigned on the promise to oppose same sex marriages, made a surprising about-face, admitted he had been wrong and changed his vote to support the same-sex marriage legislation.

Grisanti told The New York Times, “I apologize for those who feel offended,” Mr. Grisanti said, adding, “I cannot deny a person, a human being, a taxpayer, a worker, the people of my district and across this state, the State of New York, and those people who make this the great state that it is the same rights that I have with my wife.” Although only five states currently allow same-sex marriages, perhaps this marks a shift toward the middle on this issue.

There is No Such Thing as Climate Change

Scientists have been cautioning us for years that our current state of energy consumption and carbon emissions were irreparably damaging our environment. Climate deniers have long scoffed at this idea on little more than ideological grounds, but recently several have changed their viewpoints and admitted that climate change is a real danger.

However, members of the Republican party have denounced climate concerns, reigniting fierce debate. In March 2011, the GOP voted down an amendment to legislation they were attempting to pass that overruled the EPA’s assertion that global temperatures were rising and humans were the likely reason. Democrats suggested putting in language that simply explained climate change, but Republicans quashed it. Three times.

The Kyoto Protocol spurred countries to cut their carbon emissions, but the 2009 Copenhagen summit failed to continue the momentum, leaving the issue more up in the air than before with no set guidelines or penalties.

Will We Ever Be One Nation? Indivisible? With Liberty and Justice for All?

As a nation, are we moving forward, or back? Some days, it’s hard to tell. We’ve drawn lines crisscrossing our nation, our society, our towns, our friends and families. As members of many tribes, we are fractured, facing opposition on many fronts.

Our tribes have again become isolating and divisive, as they were at the start of our country and our culture, bringing us full circle. Religion and politics have driven wedges between people that are so divisive that it’s hard to see where we could come together as a society again. Lawrence Brown believes that tribal politics “threaten to roll back the hard-won progress of centuries.” Political gridlock in recent months – from holding up federal budget passage over Planned Parenthood funding to the current Congressional impasse over the debt ceiling – makes the depth of the division all too clear.

As we stay within our tribes, many times, so does the next generation. Although in many ways, we need the comfort of our tribes, our society can only move forward if we can see past our own small groups and their mindsets. Perhaps our fitful social landscape is a sign of a breakthrough pending – but perhaps we are headed straight for a wall.

Brown said, “We can’t depend on catastrophes and terrorists to bring us together. Love is a better social adhesive than grief. No one can claim to love their country if they hate half the people in it.”

Images: ginnerobot, szeke, andi.vs.zf, jonmatthew photography, Balaji.b, ^riza^

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.