In an increasingly polarized environment, where ‘fake news’ has become a buzzword, the concept of a single, indisputable truth is outdated. The testimony by FBI Director James Comey serves as a perfect case study. Based on the exact same answers, Democratic and Republican leaders have rushed to reach opposite conclusions, with at least one prominent voice going so far as to espouse publicly that his opponents are ‘not even people.’
I gained valuable perspective on the nature of truth during a decade as an expatriate working both in Hong Kong and Mainland China. Facts—regarding the Cultural Revoluion, the Tianamen Square protests, the Falun Gong activities, and many other events—changed with a single step across the border. When I spoke of this phenomenon to friends and family in the US, most blamed China’s lack of free press.
Yet the US has a vibrant free press. The country’s founders enshrined the right to freedom of speech in the Constitution. Still, facts differ with a single step across the aisle. Perspective determines whether Comey is a disgruntled and incompetent former employee with an axe to grind or a patriot standing up to a presidential bully. Truth depends on perspective, and every person views the world through lenses ground by their own experiences and beliefs.
Vilifying those who disagree with our own perspectives will not result in compromise, but conflict. From the rise of Hitler in Germany to the American Civil War, history is littered with warnings against allowing leaders to herd their people into warring camps. I hope the US is still far from the point of another caning in the Senate chamber. But after the mudslinging that served as the 2016 presidential election and the continued strife following the result (including the fallout from the clashes in Charlottesville, VA), there is little doubt the country is divided—down class, race, gender, religion, and many other lines. A spirit of compromise and understanding is sorely needed.
In the US, the First Amendment affords everyone the right to shout their views. Yet if everyone is shouting, no one is listening. Without listening to each other, there can be little hope of compromise. Berating those with differing perspectives—blocking, unfriending, muting—merely serves to draw the lines for battle. If our leaders refuse to lead—refuse to recognize that their opponents have valid concerns which must also be accommodated—as a people, we must not follow their example.