Can we be friendly towards those with different political opinions?

After reading the book Travels with Charlie, by John Steinbeck, I discuss how many aspects of US society, that Steinbeck noted in 1960, are still true today.

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A while back I read Travels with Charlie, by John Steinbeck.  This is a great story to read if you’re on a road trip since that’s what the book is about. 😉  It is set in the fall of 1960, as Steinbeck and his faithful poodle, Charlie, set out to explore the country.  Steinbeck wanted to rediscover it before he died.  I was struck by how many things he noted that seem to still be relevant today, almost 60 years–and a HUGE technology boom–later…sometimes the old adage is true, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Life isn’t simple anymore:

Steinbeck bemoaned the fact that people are always rushing around in the big cities and on the interstate highways.  He felt like they didn’t have time for chatting or pleasantries, that there was no real contact between them anymore.  He felt like everyone just kept to themselves and in their own little world.

Imagine what he’d think of today’s world, where everyone is too preoccupied with their noses in their phones, or their earbuds entertaining them, to pay any attention to the world around them.  😮

Steinbeck thought everything was too mechanized, that there was too much technology in his modern world.  He believed this made life too easy which gave people too much free time that they then filled with worry.

Things like mobile phones, the internet, and computer-driven machines hadn’t even entered popular culture yet.  What would his opinion be of today’s Brave New World?  He thinks things are bad in 1960, wait till he gets a load of the “always-on” society of the new Millenium! 😋  Does his theory help to explain why so many people suffer from anxiety in our modern world?  Do we have such–relatively– easy lives, and consequently so much free time on our hands, that we have lengthy periods to “think” ourselves into an unnecessary panic?

Steinbeck felt regional cultures around the country were becoming too homogenized.  That local dialects and customs weren’t as noticeable as he remembered from his childhood, he felt like they were all becoming too mixed and similar.  He believed this was due to people moving all over the country and living in different places than they grew up.

You have to wonder, if this was true way back then, how much worse is it now when people regularly move all around the world?  Does some good come from this?  When we travel and move to places that push us out of our comfort zone, we are exposed to new ideas and cultures.  Does that make us more tolerant of and more educated about other viewpoints?  Does this help to enrich our life experience?  

People are afraid to be honest with each other…

Steinbeck felt like there weren’t enough people, at that time, who would stand up for what they believed in.  He mentioned how people didn’t want to talk about politics with their friends, families, or close confidants anymore.  He lamented the division that he saw in the country.

It is interesting to think that, on the eve of one of the most turbulent decades in modern US history, he could feel like people wouldn’t stand up for what they believed in.  The ’60s ended up being full of protests and people doing exactly that, marching for what they felt to be just. 

What would he say about the political situation in our country today? Plenty of people march and advocate for their rights, but others are afraid to speak up for fear of public shaming.  I personally know people who won’t be open and honest with their closest friend or family member regarding who they plan to vote for because they’re afraid of negatively impacting that relationship.  To me, that is a sad commentary on the state of our nation, that we can’t have differing opinions yet still respect each other. 

A house divided cannot stand

Steinbeck talked about fighting with his Republican sisters (he was a self-professed Democrat) when he visited them, in his hometown, in California.  They would call him a Communist for his liberal views and he would compare them to oppressive tyrants like Genghis Khan because of their conservative opinions.

Sound familiar?  Things DEFINITELY haven’t changed on this front.  I think it’s sad how you see so much of this today.  In the US, Republican talking heads call Progressives “mentally ill” or “crazy”.  In contrast, Progressive talking heads refer to anyone who doesn’t agree with them as “bigoted” or the ever-popular  “Nazi”.  I know it isn’t just here in the States either.  I’m not super familiar with the politics of other countries, but I’ve read enough to know there are similar debates in those places, as well.

Why do we treat each other this way?  I don’t understand what we can possibly hope to achieve with it.  Is the majority of “the other side” really that bad?  I don’t think so.  Especially when those people consist of our friends, neighbors, and family members, who we otherwise love and respect.  I think our differences come less from one side being “right” or “wrong” and more from the fact that we misunderstand each other’s perspectives.  I also believe that people on both sides of any given issue are often ignorant (intentionally or otherwise) of the plight that others face.  I read once that “you should never criticize someone else’s views unless you can explain them.  Because, if you can’t explain them, you don’t actually understand them”.  I think this is incredibly apt.  I believe we need to stay humble and realize we may not always be as “right” as we think we are. (To be clear, I am NOT endorsing ANY political view with my comments.  I think we could ALL do better.)

Steinbeck mentions a reporter who was beaten and his camera smashed for covering certain demonstrations that were occurring.  He states that the few, screaming people who were acting badly will be on tv and will end up representing that entire area or group, but no one will know about the many, good people from that same region or social category who just want to go about their daily lives.  He describes the media in his day, “with all the polls and opinion posts, with newspapers more opinion than news so that we no longer know one from the other”.

WOW!  He could literally be writing about almost any newspaper or cable TV outlet in the country today!  It amazes me, with all the time that has passed and the many changes our society has gone through, how similar Steinbeck’s world was to our own.  It’s interesting, but it’s sad in a way too.  You get the impression that not much has changed.  In some ways, it may have gotten worse with the rise of social media and the reach of the internet.  You also get the impression we haven’t learned much in the last six decades.  Will things change much in the next six?  I’m not sure I hold out much hope…   

Can people of different political views be friendly towards each other?

Why do we fight so much and treat each other so badly?  I just don’t understand it.  Why does it always have to be “us” vs. “them”?  Why, if someone disagrees with us, do we automatically have to see them in a bad light?  Why can’t we each just have different views and opinions?

I have friends and family members that were raised in VERY similar situations as myself and with VERY similar values, yet we’re on completely opposite sides of the political spectrum.  We may agree there is a problem, but have opposing viewpoints on how to solve it.  Yet, the desire to see the problem solved comes from a place of love and caring for–and wanting to help–our fellow man.  Why can’t we use that as a cornerstone to build on, rather than calling each other names and finding ways to divide ourselves, when our values and beliefs are often similar?  We all have to live on this big, blue ball together.  Can’t we figure out a way to work with each other?

Steinbeck died in 1968, however, the politically charged climate that he saw wasn’t much different than the one we face these days.  I wonder what he would say about our modern world, and if he’d ask, “can’t we all just get along?”

So I challenge you, dear readers, to try to understand where someone from an opposing political viewpoint is coming from.  I’m not asking you to change your stance on any issue but if your question is, “how could anyone believe that?” I encourage you to look more closely at their viewpoint.  Honestly ask someone that holds that view to explain why they feel the way they do and then try to listen and understand with an open mind, an open heart, and without judgment.

I think if we take the approach that most people are good inside, even if they hold very different beliefs than we do, and we give them this benefit of the doubt, it would go a long way to making this world a better place for all of us. 

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In Travels with Charlie, John Steinbeck reflects on US society in 1960. Here, I discuss how things don't seem to have changed much in 50 years.

 

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