Franke: ‘Splitting’ Off
When did we as Americans plunge into the abyss of demonizing everyone with whom we disagree?
It wasn’t this way for the first 30 years of my life. Some of the most fulfilling times of my undergraduate days were spent debating philosophy, religion and politics with friends of what was then the left wing. At least that beat spending time at the library.
We would fight it out at student government meetings and then repair to a local establishment with a rather casual attitude about Indiana liquor laws. We never thought of each other as evil or stupid, just misguided, and well worth the time spent in intensive debate.
Not so anymore. Looking backward, my best guess as to when we began the descent into intolerance hell was the Robert Bork confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. He was opposed, and they made no secret about it, purely on political lines. The man was brilliant and would have left an intellectual mark on the Court as no one since, except possibly for Clarence Thomas. Yet the Senate Democrats “borked” him, as this maneuver came to be known. Most court nominees since then, and certainly all put forth by Republican presidents, have faced either the threat of or the experience of being borked. Witness Brett Kavanaugh.
I’ve noticed this trend even among friends who otherwise are kind, reasonable people. This developed in my conservative circle of friends during the Obama years as his initiatives and pronouncements were judged based on the man without serious examination of their value. His motivation could never be pure so his proposals were to be opposed.
And then came Donald Trump.
It never seemed to matter what he said; it had to be opposed vociferously. After all he was “illegitimate” and totally evil. I’m not speaking only of the Washington politicians or East coast media, who have lost all credibility with most of us in fly-over land. It was the opinion of progressives everywhere who preached this as an article of faith. The irony of this rabid opposition was that someone as personally despicable as Donald Trump could garner so many votes. If the elitists are reduced to slavering rage at the merest mention of his name, we deplorables conclude there must be something good hidden behind the bluster and verbal bullying.
Just look at the recent Pfizer announcement of an effective antidote to COVID. Immediately its efficacy was challenged by some of the usual suspects just because Trump trumpeted it (pun intended). Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, at once both the darling of the media for his non-Trump pandemic response while being the governor with about the worst virus track record in the nation, is against it for reasons that are at best obscure. If Trump says it is good, then it is perforce bad. Period.
What is it that has so corrupted us?
A op-ed in the Wall Street Journal instructs us that this phenomenon was first popularized by an inter-war psychoanalyst named Melanie Klein. In layman’s terms, Klein described how we humans “split off” intolerable thoughts inconsistent with our prejudices. If we view someone as evil, he or she must be thoroughly evil and any redeeming qualities must be split off. Likewise, those we adore must have any deficiencies split off so as to not affect their pure goodness.
Klein posited that this keeps the world neat in the short term but leads to distorted reality and warps responses to the real world. To quote the article’s author Andrew Hartz: “It makes conversation difficult [and] impairs relationships.”
So the next time you are enduring a rant by someone from the other side, first take the time to do an honest introspection of any rants you may have delivered previously. If conscience gives you a pass, feel free to tell them they are “splitting.”
And then you probably should split, in the hippie sense of the word. The discussion won’t be getting friendlier any time soon.
Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.