I once asked my writing class, which was attached to a course in communication, to identify themselves as Republican, Democrat, or Independent, group up, then write a description of their party—the values that united them. Then I asked them to write a description of what the other groups believed. When they were finished, they read them out, comparing the self-descriptions with what the other groups thought of them. Though their negative descriptions of the “Other” carried little of the toxicity such an exercise would produce today, the two descriptions bore little relation to each other. What followed was a baffled silence—the sort of shaken-loose moment teachers love, for it opens the mind to new perceptions. In the twenty years since that day, the toxicity toward the “Other” has increased to the point where the discussion that followed that moment would be impossible—if not outlawed as treason. What have we done to each other?
When the French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, came to America in 1831, he decided the greatest hope for democracy in America was not in its government or institutions but in the people themselves—in their sense of equality with one another. (He refers only to Caucasians, considering the role of other races separately.) The absence of an aristocracy and the sense of higher birth embedded in European systems grounded the norms and values—the “habits of the heart”—of Americans so deeply that their democracy might survive.
What has happened to that mutual respect? Debunking others extends far beyond political allegiance. I grew up the daughter of a professor of medicine, where doctors divide themselves into medical and surgical branches. The former refers to the latter as “plumbers and mechanics,” the latter debunking the former as inferior intellects. Watch any episode of Gray’s Anatomy for a dose of their arrogance. The academic world of my childhood was divided into theoretical and applied, each holding the other in contempt. We seem to do anything to escape the equality we were born into. When did our self-esteem require debunking others?
Because I did grow up and spend a good part of my life in academia, I am most pained and angered by the role it has played in the split between college-educated and not, white collar and blue, and in the creation of an elite that looks and feels very much like an aristocracy. De Tocqueville writes that in the America of that day, you could argue against all other values except equality. Attack that and you were in trouble. And indeed we are. Half of Americans, blue-collar especially, feel they no longer have a voice, and neither institutions nor norms will stand in the way of their rage. We’ve done it to ourselves and will have to find our own way out—starting with respect for the roles others play in our lives.