America’s culture of opinions and name-calling

“The Internet is like closing time at a blue-collar bar in Boston. Everyone’s drunk and ugly and they’re going to pass out in a few minutes,” wrote Leon Wieseltier for The New Republic. It’s something many baby boomers observe and shake their heads. Even before the Internet, BoomerCafé Co-Founder and Executive Editor Greg Dobbs found the world to be a fairly snarky place. 

The very first words from the very first caller during my very first talk show on KOA Radio were, “You are such a jerk.”

Microphone

Radio studio microphone.

It was a rude awakening. But it also was an instructive education. You see, I had watched other talk radio hosts to see how they approached each show and what I learned was, first say hello, then say what you think about the hot-topic-of-the-day, then open the phones and let listeners chime in on what they think about what you think.

This was almost 25 years ago and I don’t even remember what my very first topic was —probably some liberal rant — but what I do remember is, I figured that once I’d done my carefully crafted, unassailably logical, inarguably intelligent 15-minute monologue on it, no one on earth could possibly find fault with my reasoning and all would proclaim in unison that I was God’s gift to civilization … or to talk radio, at least. Until the first guy I put on the air called me a jerk.

And that got me to wondering, why do so many of us, who otherwise probably share a lot of the same values, see the world so differently? I wonder about it to this day when I argue issues with personal friends, whose backgrounds, and educations, and family lives, and IQs, and places in the middle class, are all pretty much like mine. Whether it’s the sanity of stockpiling guns in our homes, the soundness of universal health care, or the security of a nuclear deal with Iran, somehow we see the issue with very different points of view.

I used to think it was as simple as nature versus nurture, with nurture playing a paramount role. But today I think, not so much. My own parents, who my siblings and I loved and respected, by and large politically were on the right side of the center-line, yet each of their kids ended up on the left side. Yet I know plenty of families where the kids turned out as their parents’ political clones. And yet others where some of the offspring ended up conservative and some not.

Greg Dobbs

Greg Dobbs

Which leaves nature. That doesn’t mean our politics are hereditary; experience proves they’re not. But are they genetic? Could there be a gene that somehow shapes our view of the world?

A growing body of university researchers thinks so. Either a gene, or a psychological characteristic, or a personality trait.

For example, at the University of Nebraska, they studied the responses of conservatives and liberals to different kinds of images — one example given is of a very large spider on somebody’s face — and found that conservatives spent more time anxiously studying the images and felt more threatened than liberals.

Meanwhile, at University College London, researchers studied the part of the brain that lights up when we’re anxious or scared, and found that it is larger in conservatives than it is in liberals. This would help explain conservative fears when it comes to issues like guns, health care, and Iran.

I don’t mean to make conservatives out to be more contrary or panicky than liberals; clearly there is more grey matter in these equations than absolutes, and clearly there are innumerable exceptions to the rule (like climate change, where it’s the left that fears the sky is falling). So maybe a better word for conservatives than “anxious,” or “scared,” is “prudent.” Maybe some people are born with more inherent prudence than others. Which by contrast makes liberals less prudent and bigger risk-takers. Which, some would argue, might not be a good thing when it comes to guns, health care, or Iran.

The upshot of all this is, maybe we are blessed at birth with our political proclivities. Maybe the disturbing divide in America between liberals and conservatives cannot easily be overcome. Maybe I am both God’s gift to civilization, and a jerk. Maybe it depends on who you ask.

Former television network correspondent Greg Dobbs is a lecturer, public speaker, writer and columnist for The Denver Post.

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