As a daily dog walker, I frequently encounter smiles, waves, honks and drivers who pull their cars over. That attention is directed at Rosie, a 6-year-old Vizsla, a Hungarian pointer dog, usually strapped to my right arm, and Kipo, on my left, a 2-year-old mini dachshund. Rosie is the canine version of a supermodel, and a hard-to-control bundle of muscle, which explains why my right arm is stronger than my left—but it’s adorable Kipo who steals the show.
Over the years, I have met many people from all walks of life who share with me a lifetime love of and companionship with dogs. Yet, sometimes I learn those people have other views diametrically opposed to mine. For me, as a Catholic studies professor this reality often complicates the imperative of the Golden Rule and what it means to love one’s “neighbor.”
This came to mind as I was recently reading Outrage Machine: How Tech Amplifies Discontent, Disrupts Democracy—And What We Can Do About It. In this important book, Tobias Rose-Stockwell charts the rise of social media and shares his research findings that on social-media we are not exposed to the best version of peoples’ arguments, but rather to extreme perspectives. Social media engagement, Rose-Stockwell argues, has led to more societal polarization, as moderate views become a victim of cancel culture. As a result, we are more intolerant of other views and have less empathy for those who disagree with us.
In the social media landscape we are, in other words, our worst selves. Rose-Stockwell writes that on social media:
“Our words are suddenly soaked in righteousness, certainty, and extreme judgment … When we are shown what’s wrong in the world, we feel the desire to correct it. We want to share these transgressions with our networks. If we see more problems, these problems must have perpetrators who are responsible for them. These enemies are now everywhere, and we feel the need to call them out.”
As a result, we experience a shift in our perception, a diminished ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and more fractured communities.
Take my friend Jim. We met at an Iowa City prairie when Rosie was a puppy and Jim’s dog Duggan, a one-eyed Brittany spaniel, taught Rosie to do things like roll in dead snakes, sniff out small rodents and follow in pack order.
Jim is a retiree who has worked various Human Resources jobs and embraces life to the fullest. Jim is a huge supporter of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes, in particular the women’s basketball team and their fearless leader, Caitlyn Clark. Jim is a big believer in a college education and supports his grandchildren by paying for their in-state tuition at the university. He is a proud father, grandfather and husband.
More often than not, these conversations moved to difficult territory. Jim was and continues to be a Trump supporter, and I see Trump as the antithesis to what I value, from his attempts to undermine the integrity of our democracy to his blatant misogyny.
I recall one time during the Presidential election cycle of 2016 when Jim insisted that former president Barack Obama was linked to Muslim terrorist groups, and that Hillary Clinton was involved in the Q-Anon-spun conspiracy of “Pizzagate.” When I asked Jim where his information came from, he would cite obscure online sources and Fox News. This was, precisely the time when social media was blowing up and conspiracy theories promulgated by Alex Jones were infiltrating everyday discourse.
At the time we met, I was writing my book Meatpacking America, based on research in Iowa and the Midwest. Jim always expressed interest in what I was writing that day.
He was one of the first people I had talked with who was open and honest about his trust in Donald Trump. Jim saw Trump as an outsider in the cesspool of Beltway politics, and felt strongly that he could “clean up” Washington, D.C. Jim felt Hillary Clinton was corrupt and had been in politics for far too long. While Jim’s views often alarmed me, they also put a face on what I was seeing and hearing in the news and social media channels. And for Jim, I was one of the only non-Trump supporters he had encountered.
In the days before the 2016 election—days when I was wrestling with the toxicity of politics and the polarization of America—I avoided these walks with Jim. After Trump was elected, I was angry, sad, and disappointed. And yet, we continued our conversations, though it was not easy. I remember saying heatedly once, “Jim, he is not my President.”
Jim was willing to admit that while he admired Trump as a businessman, he could not relate to the fact that Trump was also born into wealth. But Jim stood by his chosen candidate and truly believed Trump was the best choice because he was “self-made.” Even though Jim acknowledged that Hillary also had to work her way to the top, he still did not like her. He could not get behind my opinion that sexism playing a role in Hillary not being elected.
After trial and error, I can say that starting a conversation with someone you are getting to know by taking about abortion, politics, guns or religion is not the best way to craft a meaningful relationship. Give it time. Ease into it. And talk. The first step is establishing a common respect for each other is to begin with what you share in common: dogs, walks and, yes, even the weather. This establishes mutual respect and, importantly, establishes our connectedness as humans.
I think about all the walks and conversations with Jim that year. I wonder how many of the current divisions in our country could be mitigated if we were not able to hide behind our screens for everyday interactions. There is a virtue in being able to see those we perceive as the “other” in their multi-dimensionality. We have an opportunity to encounter the best of each other instead of only the worst. In an age when it is all too easy for us to dehumanize and even demonize each other, let’s resist becoming part of the outrage machine.
Kristy Nabhan-Warren is the V. O. and Elizabeth Kahl Figge Chair of Catholic Studies and a professor in the Departments of Religious Studies and Gender, Women's, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. She is the author of Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland.