Left, Right, Center, or Upside-Down: Control Freaks Abound
Politics aren't the problem, they're just the means to an ugly end.
You can’t make a move or state an opinion without confronting the real pandemic of our time: control freaks.
The loudest people today are the ones who are most certain they alone have everything figured out—everything. Which ideas are worth debating, how you should raise your kids, what makes a relationship good, what political beliefs you should have, and of course, how the entirety of our society should be run.
There’s no need for you anymore—that is, the you who’s an individual with unique experiences, insights, and the desire to forge a life of your own. The you that control freaks want is a body with a social security number that grants them the ability to sway society through social pressure and majority rule. All that extra stuff you call “individuality" is an obstacle to making you a cog in their machine.
Because what’s the point of other people if you can’t make them do what you want?
Instead of living out the unique life that each of us has, the pressure from those who want control over us has pushed many people to pursue conformity. Whether it comes from parents, peers, or authority figures, people learn to give control freaks what they want early in life.
It should be restated (every day, at least): we live in strange times. We all know this, but it’s easy to acclimate to the weirdness and forget just how strange our times are. We focus on the big examples: war, political polarization, TikTok-transmitted illnesses. The truly strange stuff is more subtle, though. It’s the way your online reputation is increasingly more valuable than your real-world reputation. It’s the way your government and strangers in far-off countries have access to your attention any time you check the news or your phone. It’s the way our migration into massively populated cities and our constant connection to all of humanity online makes humans seem less precious, and more disposable. All the right ingredients are coming together to make your individuality worse than useless.
As our culture becomes one where the appearance of being a good person surpasses the importance of actually being good, the way we value others is also mutating. More people are losing their tolerance for anyone who isn’t like them. While we act like our political differences amount to a battle between good and evil, the truth is less extreme: some people value freedom more than care, and others value care more than freedom. This is the normal spectrum of different beliefs and values we encounter daily, whether among friends, colleagues, or the neighbors we now ignore. These are the old, inevitable differences that have shown up since the birth of electoral politics, where we routinely face the reality that about half our country is more liberal or conservative than the other half.
But as talking TV heads, curated newsfeeds, and infinite block lists invade our lives, it’s getting harder to recall the value in tolerating our differences.
Trust degrades quickly when the threat of being controlled by strangers looms too closely. We were once incentivized to accept occasional losses to the other side as the cost of democracy, but when it seems like one side is playing for keeps, few will risk giving an inch.
As our cultural has become more embattled, our lives have become more comfortable and customizable than ever. An entire country that once sat down at the same time to watch the same cable broadcast is now divided into nearly infinite timelines, with each individual choosing what they’ll watch and when. You once listened to music in the order the artist arranged their album, but most people I know don’t listen to albums anymore—they listen to single songs out of a library they’ve customized. Social media is customized to give you an experience dictated by you, from what you see and who you see it from to what you’ll mute and block out of your attention. We’re so accustomed to our custom lives that we don’t even see the novelty in our customized home temperatures until we’re somewhere we can’t control.
Would it be crazy to question whether our customized lives are making us intolerant of anything—and anyone—that doesn’t bend to our will?
I wasn’t born appreciating the ways people differ from me. I once believed people with different political views were just blocking the path to where society “should” be. My dysfunctional relationship with reality meant anything that didn’t conform to my beliefs needed to be denied or suppressed. Whether it was other people’s beliefs or my own flaws, I hadn’t yet learned that “should” is a dark, intoxicating concept that can trick you into denying reality for the sake of a fantasy. My immature moral certainty about what I thought other people “should” believe entitled me to use any means to change them, from social pressure to government policies. The reality of other people’s different values, ideas, and goals didn’t conform to my desires, so in my naive mind, the obvious response was to change reality. But reality is hard to change—especially when you refuse to acknowledge it first, and especially if it involves anyone’s perception of reality besides yours. My resistance to reality made me turn to manipulation, deception, and defensiveness—all strategies for taking control when reality doesn’t affirm delusion.
I’m lucky that my resistance to reality failed me early in life. A painful break-up made me realize how futile my efforts to deny reality were. No matter how much I tried to change myself or the other person, the reality of our incompatibility remained. The only real choice I had about reality was whether I would face it or fight it and eventually face it regardless, but with added suffering.
The more willing I became to see reality as it was, the more equipped I became to understand and deal with it.
Unlike most things in our lives today, other people are not customizable. The control we enjoy over what we watch and who we block doesn’t transfer to the real people in the world around us. When leftists complain that every conservative is a racist or conservatives complain that every leftist is evil, they’re refusing to see an inconvenient reality: annoying, misinformed people still exist no matter how passionately you believe they shouldn’t. No amount of deception, manipulation, or other control tactics will change reality—they just obscure it. Or worse, when too many people forget the value of tolerating the reality that people unlike you have a right to their existence too, the result is often suffering and loss of life.
Instead of trying to control people we differ from, we have to see the reality of our differences as information to work with. It won’t be as easy as clinging to delusion, but people who value others as more than a means to their ends make for neighbors we might actually talk to again.
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