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Stop crossing the line

Cars driving on either side of the yellow lines
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Gerzon and Gates are co-founders of Philanthropy Bridging Divides. Gerzon is president of the Mediators Foundation and author of "The Reunited States of America.” Gates is a former president of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement and the National Civic League.

If political progress follows technological innovation, then there is hope for our democracy.

Most new cars now have a sensor that tells us when we cross the line. It gives us a warning to get back in our lane. Unfortunately, in politics we witness politicians and citizens “crossing the line” all too often. Like on the road, the resulting damage is sometimes irreparable.

Now that anyone who criticizes extremist speech is automatically attacked, the result is predictable. Whoever does it gets labeled as “partisan.” If you call out someone in the MAGA world for crossing the line, you would be dismissed as “anti-Trump.” Conversely, if you call out a progressive for using offensive language that is insulting or demeaning (remember the “deplorables”?) readers will assume you are Trumpites or Fox News junkies. If anyone who criticizes extremist speech is automatically attacked, the result is predictable: self-censorship and silence.

The disagreement over the Israel-Hamas conflict has clearly made matters worse. The dispute is profoundly dividing the Democratic Party, in ways that will create lasting scars. When we read the social media posts of former friends and colleagues on both sides of the issue, we see language that clearly crosses the line on both sides, words that can’t be taken back. It will be impossible, once this situation has resolved itself, to say, “Only kidding” or “We’re fine.” In politics, as on the road, crossing the line has consequences.

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To continue having a truly United States of America, we need to find a way to stay within the lines. We need to find a way to not condemn and demonize each other. Otherwise, as on the highway, traffic will turn into chaos and damage will ensue.

In a divided time and a divided nation, we need to find ways to hear opposing opinions and process them with understanding, without condemning the source. Even Maureen Dowd recently wrote, “Here’s the reality people don’t want to accept: Trump is likely to be one of two candidates who will be president in 2025. Even if we despise the things he says, we’ve got to hear them.”

If we only had the same sensors in our lives that would BEEP BEEP BEEP when we crossed that line, we would be well served. Instead, even the most reasonable people can end up offending, dismissing and castigating one another, which makes forward movement impossible. Eighty-one million people voted for Joe Biden in the last election. Seventy-four million people voted for Donald Trump. If each side concludes that the other is fundamentally evil we will never be able to govern or act as a nation that has shared values.

And yet, if we polled all those voters, we would discover that we are actually a nation that shares core values about what makes for a good community and a good life. We would find scant support for more crime, worse schools, more litter, more traffic jams or more political dysfunction. True, we do have big fundamental disagreements about things that become elevated by cable television and social media and we can become convinced that our neighbor is our enemy, not someone with whom we agree on some things and disagree on others.

Disagreeing with someone with whom we agree on many things is fundamentally different than disagreeing with someone with whom we agree on nothing. We could lower the political temperature in our country by installing a warning system that lets us know when we cross the line, turning disagreement into dislike or disdain. If only Elon Musk could take that project on.


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