When Joe Biden took the oath of office and became president, his speech focused on a theme we’ve heard a lot about lately, unity. In a speech intended to set the tone for his administration, he said, “Unity is the path forward.” I think he’s right about this, but like most things, uniting people is easier said than done.
Last week, I wrote about the necessity for holding elected officials accountable as a step towards unity in the aftermath of the Capitol riot. This week, I’d like to focus a bit closer to home. What do we need to do, beyond holding leaders accountable, to bring about some form of unity in our country? How do we stop the spread of the anger and paranoia that led people to violently storm the halls of congress? What does “unity” mean for everyday citizens?
I assume you did not storm the Capitol on January 6th. You probably don’t even know anyone who did, but you do probably know people who believe the election was stolen or who engage in conspiratorial thinking. And you definitely know those who are conspiracy-curious, people who hear some of these wild theories and, because of their frustration and skepticism, they’re more likely to explore those theories further.
Conspiracy theories are a refuge for those who feel anxious, uncertain, and, most importantly, alienated from the rest of the world. During COVID-19 and various other crises of the last year, anxiety and uncertainty were, understandably, rampant. When that feeling of anxiety is resolved by a theory or idea that reduces all the uncertainty, it can be nearly impossible to argue someone logically out of the belief that offers so much comfort.
The solution to stop the spread of unhealthy beliefs is twofold.
First, we must offer a way out for those who are in the grip of that conspiracy. They must not feel that making a mistake means that they can never be accepted again. They may not be able engage now, but there must be hope for reconciliation or they’re doomed to stay in the grip of the dysfunctional community that does accept them.
Second, we must examine our own behavior that leads us to alienate people who share different beliefs from us. Instead of shutting someone out who holds a belief that we think is wrong, we should strive to maintain a healthy relationship.
Unity does not require agreement on every point, but it does demand that we live together peacefully. That means desiring the best for our ideological opposites and striving for points of connection, even when we may never see eye-to-eye on some subjects.
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