With the fascination of a latent sociologist I’ve been studying the dialogue of the “Great American Divide,” a seemingly terrifying fissure that appears to have suddenly cracked open in the past couple of years, though many say this division has been present and growing for some time. Before the election, few people were discussing politics on social media. I am sure some of you are wistfully uttering, “Those were the days.” During the election we were screaming at each other on Twitter and Facebook like lunatics. But now…something else is emerging. And I think it’s good.
In response to the appearance of the fissure, I’ve been frantically amending what I thought was a more than adequate and comprehensive education in order to get up to speed on just what the heck is going on. That is, when I can find the time in the midst of, like many Americans right now, “working my fanny off just to pay the bills,” which is a sad thing as I don’t have much of a fanny to begin with since I inherited my father’s flat-as-a pancake derriere, which means I have to earn even more money to keep myself in a selection of stylish belts. But I digress…I would argue that this workaholic condition that afflicts many of us (because if we don’t adopt it, we sink) has most definitely contributed to these trying, divisive times. How can any of us take enough time to roll up our fraying pant-legs and wade through the mire in order to pluck out the truth about the latest political crisis from the swamp on any given day…and since the election, the onslaught of political crises seems relentless.
To get educated, I first reread The Constitution. Wow, it’s a lot more interesting than I remember in 8th grade when we were more focused on which one of us was shooting spitballs at the somewhat plain and boring social studies teacher in his white button down shirt and khaki pants (still, he had a pretty amazing afro for a white guy). I’ve also been reading a range of online media sources that relay wide perspectives (sometimes alarmingly wide!) on the significant issues we face, trying to bookmark the least biased sources of information (quite a tough undertaking). I’ve been listening to a range of radio news and noting (okay, I admit it, sometimes welcoming) the biases of my favorite sources, such as Democracy Now, NPR’s Morning Edition, and On Point. I regularly tune into Vermont’s WDEV’s somewhat right-leaning Open Mike and Common Sense Radio. Occasionally, I even venture into far right Christian radio land just to see what they are saying. And lo and behold, they appear to care about the same human concerns as most of us, like friends and family, helping the downtrodden, and living a compassionate life. It’s just that their narrative of how and why to live this way is different than mine. By far, my favorite program has been Indivisible and I was sorry to see it go when the current administration passed the 100-day mark. I am sure I am not alone in craving “centrist” news and discussion…if anything today, many of us are seeking dialogue between extremes.
While some friends have plain opted out of Facebook, others have gone back to posting videos of cute animal antics, and others are still ranting and raving, I have taken to “limited Facebook exposure,” like one tends to limit exposing pale bare skin to especially bright and damaging sunlight. I walk the fence between posting benign, quirky life observations and occasional political commentary. So, following the passage of the AHCA in the House this week, I bravely ventured into two different Facebook threads—one post by a solidly conservative friend and one post by a solidly liberal friend.
Both posts started out, predictably, on an emotional level. The rightwing post was the equivalent of “Yay! Goodbye Obamacare!” And the leftwing post echoed the sentiments of Henny Penny: “The sky is falling!” As a liberal I did not share the view of my conservative friend, so of course, I reacted emotionally, but as respectfully as I could—something to the effect of “women, children, and the elderly are not going to be able to afford appropriate care under the new bill, the rich are going to get richer, and how dare they put sexual and domestic assault on a list of pre-existing conditions??” Meanwhile, something akin to the liberal post had coursed on a wave of adrenaline through my veins when I heard the AHCA had passed the House by a narrow margin. What did this potentially mean for my healthcare going forward? I was having enough trouble making my insurance payments and out of pocket expenses already. Riveted to the radio on my way to teach my morning class at a local college, I had decided that it was most definitely going to get worse. Thus, I “Liked” the liberal post and was about to log off and rejoin the world of the real.
But then I was drawn further into the threads of both posts, past the ranting against government regulation and those dastardly democrats, past the pronouncements of disgust about the new administration and how we are all going to die in the streets, bereft and shoeless. And here is what happened.
In the conservative thread, my friend who made the post, happy to see a step taken towards repealing Obamacare, was relaying the exact same struggles I felt: unmanageable, unaffordable insurance premiums, high deductibles, a convoluted system that was not working so well, painful out of pocket costs, and feeling broke as hell. The only difference was she saw the AHCA as a step towards a solution and I saw it as a giant step away from a solution. (Personally, I would love to see a single-payer system such as has worked well in Canada and Europe for years and be done with the whole mess.) Because I saw commonality, I started dialoguing with her and some of the strangers on her thread, and guess what? I lived! Some of the responders went into detail about their medical costs and illness woes. We were all in the same boat. People posted this and that resource—some biased sources, some not. Some people chided others for not having their facts straight, but in a respectful manner. Those who were chided appeared to research and revise their opinions. Was this a miracle?
What I observed was a shift. Where a couple of months ago, condescending, derogatory comments would have flown, name calling would have started, and the F-word would have been typed as fast as fingers could fly, instead, we were talking, listening, teaching, and learning. I read the articles they posted and followed links to even more articles. When I left the thread, I felt better informed on the AHCA, though I still disagree with many of the bill’s points. I felt like President Obama’s statement in The New Yorker following this election was right: “This is not the apocalypse.”
In the liberal thread, I noticed one lone conservative voice. The friend who had made the initial post, which was a list of pre-existing conditions for which Americans would struggle to get coverage if the AHCA becomes law, had dismissed this lone naysayer and said, “We will have to agree to disagree.” Okay, fair enough. But what if this voice of dissent had something important to share about the legislation poised to impact our lives to such a great degree? I followed her link to read about the misinformation being spread about pre-existing conditions. If it was misinformation, I wanted to know. While exhibiting a subtle condescension towards all things liberal, the information in her chosen article was actually on par with what I had managed to glean about the AHCA bill by poking around online and listening to a variety of radio news. Of course her source was right-biased and there were nuances that the article downplayed—namely that if one has a lapse in coverage, the potential is to pay much higher premiums for pre-existing conditions. However, this woman’s article showed that the post that my liberal friend had made was incorrect and misleading. There is no “list” of conditions in the bill. And the decision falls to the states as to whether to allow insurance companies to charge higher premiums if there is a lapse in coverage (a 60-day lapse, as I learned from a guy on the conservative thread). There is, apparently, no denial of coverage of pre-existing conditions as my friend’s post had intimated, and even higher premiums are not a given. “Thank god I live in Vermont,” I thought, as my representatives will not likely seek a waiver from the community rating. Still, this bill weakens pre-existing condition protections because if one is unlucky enough to live in a state that seeks a waiver, and has some bum luck that causes a lapse of coverage, a person could quickly be out-priced and out of luck on pre-existing conditions. Yes, there would be a high-risk pool, but is this funding enough?
Surprisingly, little ole liberal me then jumped in to stand with the conservative woman in the thread, because what I want is accurate information, not to be right. As I stood with her, others came to the center and the dialogue deepened.
On the subject of being right, I also discovered, thanks to her and because I did some more sleuthing after reading her article, that I was not “right” in regards to my freak out about sexual and domestic assault being on the AHCA’s list of pre-existing conditions—a point about which liberal bloggers had also been freaking out the day before—because, well, there is no list of pre-existing conditions in the bill, and second, those items are not on the lists of common pre-existing conditions identified by insurers. Here was another nuance: many conditions that assault victims may suffer from, such as anxiety, PTSD, depression, and STDs, ARE on such lists. And so, by default, IF a person is assaulted, has a lapse in coverage longer than 60 days, and suffers from some of those conditions, she might have to pay higher premiums to get treatment. Whether this nuance is ethical or not will need to be saved for another debate.
So…I had to pull up my Big Girl frayed pants over my hardworking, flat fanny and go back to the conservative thread to amend my position on the sexual assault point I had made the day before, and I included a link to a solid article on Politifact that I found about how the initial freak out had been off base. No one tore me apart.
Here is the thing. What I see happening that I think is a good development in our country is that we ARE talking about politics and we are growing up past the “Green and Yellow Told Ya!” unproductive shouting phase. In social media we are now quickly identifying trolls; we are chiding anyone who name calls or swears. We are asking challenging questions and checking each other’s facts. And, best of all, we are listening and learning. And this, this is the gem of our current time. This is the heart of the Socratic method that I have seen over and over bring diverse students in my classrooms to a common discourse that deepens understanding of any text or issue on the table.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all puppies and rainbows. But it never was and never will be. Respectful discourse—like what I just experienced on both sides of the political fence while discussing a highly charged issue on a social media platform infamous for knockdown-drag outs—is what will bridge our divide and help us to find logical solutions to our complex problems. Now if it could only plump up my rump…