Americans are lonely and isolated. And politics is largely to blame
As a rabbi, I’ve noticed a fundamental spiritual lack among many of the community members I work with: They’re lonely.
And all the political vitriol has only fed into their loneliness.
Over the past two decades, we’ve witnessed a breakdown of Americans’ essential relationships — family members avoiding one another, friendships dissolving and community institutions struggling to function.
We’ve become accustomed to a growing intolerance for different opinions.
A close relative might not show up for Thanksgiving, Passover or Christmas on the basis of a political disagreement. Or someone might quit their house of worship if their clergyperson gives a sermon expressing a differing ideological view.
3 ways we deal with truth and others
In my work, I’ve noticed three distinct epistemological differences for dealing with truth within our relationships.
The first category of people is the absolutists. Absolutists believe only their views are correct, and that all other views are foolish and must be attacked.
Any differing view is not just incorrect or potentially damaging, but a threat to their own personality.
This is rarely the correct route to take.
The second category is relativists. Relativists believe truth is not truly accessible, and they take the position that all viewpoints are to some extent correct.
This is false humility.
A relativist becomes apathetic about the marketplace of ideas and can slip into hedonism, finding there is nothing worth fighting for because the value of tolerance of all opinions is held so highly.
While it might seem more benign than the fundamentalism of absolutists, relativism, too, is dangerous. For a relativist, once the flame of goodness and justice is extinguished, it becomes difficult to reignite.
The answer to the problems of our world cannot be jadedness.
A third approach best serves our communities: pluralism. Like the relativists, pluralists accept that they do not possess to the whole truth.
However, like the absolutists, they refuse to give up on their own moral commitments.
By navigating this tension wisely, pluralists can fight for what they believe in while also making space for others to express themselves — so that we can all move toward a world of more truth and justice.
Welcome other views and keep your convictions
We need not choose between shutting out all other views and accepting all opinions uncritically.
Instead, we can learn from diverse perspectives while sharpening our own viewpoints. The dysfunctions of current-day discourse will be fixed only if we can build cultures of concurrent tolerance and critical thinking.
The way politics and religion have progressed this century bodes poorly for our cherished friendships, families and communities if we remain willing to burn everything down in the name of purity.
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This is not at all to say we must give up our convictions. In fact, the watering down of many of our values, cultures and identities has left political affiliation to fill all the space, to our detriment.
Living in a hyperpoliticized, culture-deficient environment — particularly online — has caused us to cast out our needs for intellectual, spiritual and interpersonal connection.
Build a society of ‘us,’ not one of ‘me’
Only twice do the Hebrew scriptures suggest something is not good (lo tov): not to live alone (Genesis 2:18) and not to lead alone (Exodus 18:17).
In our time, we often lose sight of the main function of activism and justice work is to create better lives for more people.
I worry that, in attempting to do this important work, too many are accidentally destroying our key relationships and support systems, and we are worsening our lives by making each of us a righteous minority of one.
We are making it more difficult to make change, and we are tearing apart the institutions that should be the foundation of our efforts to improve the world.
In my view, the only way out is to stand strong in our own convictions, to make space for others and to build up more than we tear down. With a slight change of consciousness, we can rebuild a society of “us” rather than a society of “me.”
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is president & dean of Valley Beit Midrash and leader of Arizona Jews for Justice. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.