Columnist Jay Fleitman: Uncertain path out of polarization

  • In this May 31 photo, President Donald Trump pumps his fist as he steps off Air Force One after arriving at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base, in Houston.  AP FILE PHOTO

Monday, June 04, 2018

I didn’t want to talk politics with her, but there was no stopping her.

I try not to talk politics with patients during the workday. There is tremendous time pressure during the course of my schedule, which does not allow for such potentially time-consuming conversations. More importantly, the professionalism of medicine does not comfortably comport with contentious politics.

On this particular afternoon, a patient whom I have known for many years came primed for battle. The opening salvo from her was the most usual. She knew I was a Republican, so did I support Donald Trump? I’d been here countless times, I knew what was coming, and despite my admonishment that it was not appropriate to have this conversation during a medical office visit, the genie was already out of the bottle.

She went on with the usual litany of complaints and grievances about the horrors of President Trump that are completely familiar to people on both sides of the political divide. The angry emotional tone of her tirade amplified as the minutes went on. It is very hard to maintain your own calm in the face of the accusations implied by such a tirade.

She could not be sidetracked, either by my attempts to remind her where she was and what we were supposed to be doing. 

Raising objections to some of her points simply led to escalation. Any arguments that I made contrary to an opinion or position she held were promptly dismissed or deflected as being untrue in the context of her beliefs. I realized that there was an impenetrable wall around her thought processes, and that she existed in a world built on certain assumptions with a perspective and belief system that could not be pierced or disturbed.  

Her assumptions and the beliefs which grew out of them hold very little in common with my own. I simply could not understand how she believed what she clearly believes with passion and vehemence.  She certainly could not approach my viewpoint. We live in different worlds, with no points of contact. So is the polarization of American political life.

I have done medical legal work during my career, which has included testifying as an expert witness in several trials. While observing these courtroom proceedings, it was clear to me that both sides in these legal cases were working to create competing views of reality based on the same set of presented facts, with the intent of getting the jury to accept one of those belief systems. The side that gets the jury to move into their reality wins the case. This is not much different from what is happening in our political polarization.

How we’ve gotten to separate noncommunicating thought universes that inhabit the same geography is likely a matter of underlying assumptions based on upbringing and experience, compounded by a normal human tendency to seek out friends and allies who share our belief system. That is magnified by decades of a polarizing national media that projects their own prejudices and panders to their own audiences.

There are people who are not trapped in this polarization. Certainly, there are many people who have tuned out and find this world of political conflict of little value to them. There are also likely many people who simply do not care from the outset. I have no way of judging the proportion of Americans who have moved to the sidelines or have stayed unengaged. 

On occasion, I have run into cogent individuals who may have their premises on one side or another, yet are able to step outside and see some of the strengths in the other side and weaknesses on their own side. These people seem to be few and far in between. I can’t say that I’m one of them.

If there is a way to navigate out of the state of polarity, I certainly can’t offer it up myself. I’m not optimistic that there is.

We can continue to try and communicate across these boundaries, but it seems to me often that the best approach is to not talk politics when it is clear that nothing constructive can come out of that discussion. We vote and hope that our side wins. Over time, the issues change and prior issues become resolved or unimportant. 

I also must mention Samantha Bee and Roseanne Barr. Without engaging in the partisanship of trying to argue whose offensive comments are worse and whose apology should be accepted, I do want to bemoan the coarsening of our civil discourse. There seems to be the loss of boundaries of propriety in the public sphere and free license to insult across political lines.

I will not blame President Trump for causing this corruption, but the demeaning conduct of his 2016 campaign either hastened this development or cynically used this trend to win that election.

There are so many other distasteful examples. Kathy Griffin jokes about beheading the president; Joy Behar trashes Christians; a chagrined Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand seems to think that peppering her speeches with the f-bomb is her path to the White House.

Impropriety has become the coin of the realm, and I’m not sorry to be old-fashioned, but this simply engenders mutual disrespect. It all should be unacceptable.

Jay Fleitman, M.D., of Northampton writes a monthly column. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.