The deep divisions that exist in America along political, economic and cultural lines have led many Americans to take a highly cynical view of government and its power to serve the people. As we count down the final hours and minutes in which our leaders are unable to avert our economic plunge off the fiscal cliff, that cynicism and fatalism is reinforced.
Last November, the week of the 2012 presidential election, I launched an effort to use the transformative power of dialogue and storytelling to better understand and heal America’s divide. When we began filming our project, known as Story of America, our cameras captured just how divided we were as voters even down to our experiences of voting and our views of the candidates. We filmed people from both sides of the political and economic spectrum covering everything from the role of government to the impact of natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy. By sharing these videos via our website and social media pages, we hoped to help people engage in a national dialogue which could one day bring us all closer together.<
After the Newtown massacre, I must confess, my faith in dialogue was tested. Two days after the shooting, I wrote a blog post responding to some of the popular pro-gun talking points that generated 50,000 likes and more than 650 comments, including some very angry and derogatory ones. I started to wonder if most Americans just live in very different realities, where each side views the other as foreign or insane.
As for me, I found myself viewing my angriest critics as living in a post-apocalyptic America of The Walking Dead, people like zombies who are out to get us, while I and many of my friends were living in a Frank Capra movie.
We took our camera to the NRA press conference in late December, their first one after Newtown. We captured NRA protesters shouting at pro-gun activists trying to disrupt their protest. I was confronted face-to-face with the specter of that existential chasm -- it looked like the NRA protesters and the pro-gun activists were utterly alien and zombie-like to each other.
In fact, when I was interviewing one of the pro-gun advocates he even asked me what would happen to us if we declared a zombie-free zone. We'd get eaten by zombies, he concluded. He started out speaking about zombies figuratively, then compared people who are addicted to meth to zombies.
This is my fear about America in a nutshell: Are we feeling so alienated from one another that we see the other as zombie-like and worthless? That is, not deserving of compassion, a voice in the political process, or even life? And, is this alienation creeping into our legislative process? Everything from gun control to the budget, immigration policies and Stand Your Ground laws?
And if that is the case, what are ultimate consequences and what are the remedies?
I do accept the point of my pro-gun friends and perhaps the creators of The Walking Dead that to some extent that civilization (law and order) is more fragile than we'd like to believe it is and there are some truly awful and destructive people out there. I can readily imagine needing to defend myself from chaotic and violent forces in our society.
The problem is that the belief that civilization is breaking down can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. The less you trust and value civilization and the inherent worth of human beings, the more willing you will be to live outside it and see the people inside as weak, parasitic and worthless. This kind of alienation from our society just is destabilizing.
I believe we have a big choice to make right now and this is the bigger point that I think the creators of The Walking Dead are making: Civilization is a choice, not a given. In order to make that choice, we must think about some fundamental questions about our relationship to each other. Do we see value in each other as human beings? As fellow Americans? Do we want to reaffirm the Union? Do we choose to commit to the principles and the experiment that is America? Is so, what does that mean? Do we consent to the social contract? If so, what does that mean? And, how do we (re)commit to the social contract in a meaningful way?
Something interesting happened for me last Friday outside the NRA press conference that helped me answer some of those questions. Despite my fear that the pro-gun folks lived in a different world, we talked.
After a few minutes of talking, they did not seem alien to me at all. I quickly realized that my initial assessment of them was fear-based and way off. I didn't agree with them, but I was able to have a civil and reasonable conversation with them. In engaging them on this polarizing topic, I was trying to make these points: 1) The gun control issue is really a public safety issue. 2) Guns are already regulated so let's not discuss if it should be regulated but how it should be. 3) The central question comes down to, which regulations are actually helpful from the standpoint of public safety and acceptable from the standpoint of self-defense/gun rights of individuals? Surely, we can have a balance of those two.
Beyond the issue of regulating guns, I realized that my anxiety about our alienation from each other, The Walking Dead problem, can be addressed by talking. Moreover, I think dialogue is itself a reaffirmation of the social contract. If we didn't care about that contract at all, we wouldn't be talking; we'd be shooting or eating each other. We would resort to violence much more often than communication. As it is, even though we're often uncivil and ineffective, we're still talking to each other. That says something. The more we talk to each other with respect (speaking our minds and listening), the less alienated we will be from each other, and the stronger our nation will be.
I know that's a lot of pressure to place on talking and dialogue. However, a sophisticated language is, after all, what distinguishes human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom.
It's tempting to think that the main problem with politics in America is extremism. I think it's a combination of extremism and the silent, browbeaten, apathetic, exhausted, cynical, disengaged and marginalized majority. That majority must now stand together with a roar to reset the course for America by dominating the national dialogue instead of allowing it to be controlled by the loudest and the most divisive few.
Annabel Park is a documentary filmmaker and founder of the Coffee Party USA, a grassroots, non-partisan movement that aims to restore the principles and spirit of democracy in America.