Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks—and, even if you have, if you’ve had wi-fi there—then you’ve surely heard “Yanny” or “Laurel.” But not both. And that, in a nutshell, is the same dynamic corroding American politics today.
“Yanny” versus “Laurel” is, of course, the question posed by a short audio clip circulating online. Roughly half of Americans hear “Yanny,” and roughly half hear “Laurel.” In that respect, it’s just another argument that divides our nation—not so different from the viral debates of the recent past, such as whether it’s a gold or blue dress, or whether it’s a duck or a rabbit.
But here’s what’s different: if you’re a person who hears “Yanny,” you can’t hear “Laurel” no matter how hard you try (absent deliberate modification of the audio clip, of course). Your brain is simply unable to hear it the other way. Gold dress people can see it as blue once they look again; duck spotters can find the rabbit once they re-focus their eyes. But “Yanny” people’s minds are totally closed to “Laurel.”
And that’s, alas, precisely where we are as a country. It used to be that Americans disagreed on policies—passionately, vigorously, adamantly—but at least could see why someone would hold the opposite view. The great policy debates that have shaped our nation—federalism versus nationalism, the welfare state versus the assault on “big government,” regulation versus deregulation, and so on—have involved differing views held by politicians, thought leaders, and segments of the public that generally could at least comprehend and acknowledge the other side’s perspective.
No more. Too many Americans don’t just have different policy preferences; their starting point is increasingly based on different understandings of the facts and thus of reality itself. Those differing views of reality are then compounded by filter shrouds, in which social media not only envelops users in what they already believe and want to hear but also does so in a personalized way that’s opaque to others. It all adds up to wholly opposite framings for key issues—immigration is about inviting more crime or it’s about extending our national heritage, but nothing in between—such that Americans genuinely can’t hear “Laurel” if their ears give them “Yanny.” This is poisoning our politics and driving us further apart.
The consequences? One is the degradation of political discourse, with debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton resembling more of a schoolyard argument, replete with name-calling and interruptions, than a civilized presidential debate of even a decade ago. Another is the increasing allegation that those with whom we disagree are criminals for holding views different from our own, an infection of political dialogue worrisomely familiar from other countries’ descents into authoritarianism. A third is Americans’ retreat into separate neighborhoods, separate friend groups, separate lives, and—most dangerously—even more divided, extreme views. All told, it’s now far more common to question how someone with a different political view could be stupid or corrupt enough to express that view than to accept his or her disagreement as sincere, if misguided, and tackle the conclusion on its merits.
In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter if you hear “Laurel” or “Yanny.” But it matters a whole lot if you can’t fathom why someone might disagree with you on immigration, or health care, or climate change. If we can’t hold in our mind an opposing view, we can’t find common ground on some of today’s toughest, most divisive issues. We can’t evaluate candidates for public office based on their proposed policies, rather than their mimicry of a familiar political narrative. And we can’t restore a modicum of respect to political dialogue itself or repair deepening social divisions so bad that hostile foreign actors have figured out how to exploit and aggravate them.
America’s founders anticipated political divides being self-correcting: vigorous debates and the marketplace of ideas would ensure that, ultimately, one view of a key policy question would prevail and our country would adopt it and move on—winners and losers alike. But today’s dynamic of division appears less self-correcting than self-fulfilling: as Americans’ perceptions of their neighbors as reasonable citizens with differing perspectives worthy of our attention and respect are replaced with views of them rooted in disbelief, mistrust, and even disgust, we come to believe more and more, to contradict President Kennedy, that what divides us is far greater than what unites us.
It’s fine to close your ears to “Laurel” or to “Yanny,” whichever you can’t hear no matter how hard you try. But it’s critical to open your mind and your heart to those with whom you fundamentally disagree. The health of our democracy depends on it.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images