Splitting America Redux: Implications for Keeping our Kids Safe

©2018 Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D. The Problem After 9/11, our lives changed, and our innocence was tainted. Individual freedoms which we previously took for granted were hijacked from us; we were scanned and patted-down at airports— eventually our belts and shoes had to come off. We felt afraid and lost our trust that we could be safe in our own country. Because of the absence of any obvious solutions that would quell our fear, we increasingly took hard-line political positions. Gradually, our elected officials began to turn on each other, hardening in polarized positions on many issues. As our citizens tried to manage this rupture of our basic safety, their own views and relationships became increasingly polarized. Some bought guns in an illusionary attempt to make them feel safe; some isolated themselves from others who might be potential threats. Gradually, the guns began shooting, triggered by disenfranchised citizens—both youth and adults. Mass shootings steadily increased—in schools, cinemas, churches, nightclubs, malls, restaurants, military installations, public and private offices, and other random places. No longer a safe, secure, innocent society, Americans have come to a tipping point of these massacres, leaving us living in communities regularly visited by conflict, violence, and life-threatening risks. The discord is fueled on many levels—the personal, interpersonal, community, and national—all complexly interconnected and reciprocally influencing each other. When a complex system functions well, all the levels and parts benefit; when it is in dysfunction, all the levels and parts harm each other, as the functions of the system continue to spiral up or spiral down. Solutions to complex social problems require some degree of harmony and cooperation, and these are hard to come by in our current political climate. These solutions must be structural— they must come from the top—generated by our elected officials crafting and implementing reasonable legislation that creates order, consistency, and fairness. When reasonable solutions are achieved, chaos and conflict subside, and people begin to behave more reasonably. This is as true of government systems as it is of family systems. In 2012, just before the presidential election, my colleague Bill Eddy and I published a book titled, “Splitting America: How Politicians, Super PACs and the News Media Mirror High Conflict Divorce.” In that book, we drew parallels between the polarizations in politics that were rampant prior to and throughout that election cycle, and high conflict divorce. We presciently predicted that, given the degree of polarization in politics and its 24/7 reflection in the media, and given what we knew about high-conflict divorce, the rampant polarization in politics would lead to further public chaos and further discord, and that we would wind up electing government officials who would continue the polarization, and continue to escalate higher conflict within government and within the public—similar to how high-conflict divorces tend to result in long-term, on-going family discord. The net result from such high conflict in divorce is children with emotional and behavioral problems (acting out), with levels of anxiety and depression (learned helplessness) that warrant professional intervention. The parallel, net result of on-going high-conflict behavior in government is general discord, anxiety, and depression (learned helplessness) among the populous, with (acting out) threats to the public by disenfranchised fringe groups, mass shootings by alienated youth and adults, and overall angst and alienation in the voting public. These children, and citizens, lose confidence in their leaders (parents, and politicians) upon whom they should be able to count to keep them safe and thriving. Looking for Solutions With the most recent of a long stream of mass shootings—the Parkland, Florida school-shooting—America’s response went into a quick split: those citizens who saw the problem primarily as a “gun control” issue, versus those who saw the problem primarily as a “mental health” issue. Each issue went into a further split: the gun control issue split into those who believed the solution should be raising the age for gun purchases from 18 to 21, versus those who believed the solution to lie in making assault weapons illegal to buy.  The “mental health” issue split further into those who believed we need to profile, interrogate and then hospitalize or incarcerate potentially violent kids, versus those who believed we need to connect better with those socially-isolated kids and help them feel included, rather than excluded. As Congress attempted to respond to this most recent tragedy, the usual polarizations among and between the Republicans and the Democrats kicked into high gear; some members of Congress went silent; some members spouted out expected Second Amendment Rights clichés, directly from the playbook of the powerful National Rifle Association, fearing their loss of support were they to go against this group; and some bravely, boldly, and finally, took a stance for gun-control. Some supported raising the purchase age for guns from 18 to 21; some supported strengthening background checks; and some supported increased funding for mental health. While many members of congress responded, in some fashion, the responses were not coordinated into an overall, effective plan of action. A main contributor to this action-paralysis is the same factor that we wrote about in Splitting America, that members of congress no longer talk with each other—the essential element for coming to compromise resolutions. Whereas, members of congress used to eat lunch together in their lunchroom, they no longer do that. Absent a forum for casual, friendship-building discussions, they tend to hold firm to their positions, with the net effect being that nothing gets decided or implemented. Deep splits within and between the Republican and Democratic Parties, fueled further by daily, erratic, inconsistent, and high-conflict tweets from the President, have kept constructive, comprise resolutions from arising. If we approach our political situation in the way that mediators approach high-conflict divorces, our first intervention would be to observe the “positions” that the parties are taking. Then, we would look for the actual, underlying “interests” that the parties have. For example, both parents in a divorce typically love their children, want the best for their children, and want to resolve their