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OPINION | GREG HARTON: Familiarity can breed humanity

by Greg Harton | July 11, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

For me, YouTube is the Internet equivalent of quicksand.

The video site's users upload hundreds of hours of new content ever hour. Even if you focus only on videos matching your own interests, the content is virtually endless.

Once I start watching, I'm easily drawn into video after video. But I've learned that no matter how many times I watch an expert make hardwood furniture, that doesn't make me a Norm Abram. Videos are helpful, but nothing beats real-world, hands-on experience as a teacher.

I think something similar is true in our human interactions, particularly those involving today's hard-edged politics. It's a lot easier to classify people who think differently than we do as villains or corrupt or ignorant when we stay in a theoretical realm. Get to know someone and, even if he's still wrong on a particular issue, it's nonetheless easier to credit the individual with a bit of humanity than if he's some cartoonish stick figure.

Last week I read an Associated Press story about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. He's an apostle of Donald Trump, having gotten elected with the former president's endorsement in 2018. DeSantis has thrived in the same populist vein that breathed life to Trump's political ambitions, engaging in "culture war" issues that fire up his conservative base. DeSantis has been defiant on any kind of mask mandate to battle covid-19, has shown no hesitancy to get into the battle over transgender athletes and embraced new voting rules based on little more than his mentor's "big lie" about having the 2020 election stolen.

The culture war generalizes groups of people and allows for their vilification in the political realm.

The gist of this story, though, was that the terrible collapse of a 12-story condo in Surfside, Fla., two weeks ago has led to a change in DeSantis' demeanor. Rather than bashing Democrats, he's stood by them as so many in Florida come to terms with the tragedy, the death count from which had grown to 78 by Friday afternoon.

According to the AP, DeSantis sat with President Joe Biden and spoke of how people with opposing political views can work together in crisis. And he skipped a Sarasota, Fla., rally headlined by Trump himself -- one that Trump declined to postpone in the wake of the condo tragedy.

It's extraordinarily difficult to walk in the midst of fellow Floridians whose family members suffered a sudden, horrific death and remain focused on divisive issues that still exist but seem not quite as important. As sharply as DeSantis and some of those folks may disagree politically, a tragedy has a way of forcing us to see people as, well, people. Not targets.

Real-world experience informs our humanity much better than trumped up divisions for political purposes.

We've gotten pretty good in this country at defining our political opponents by the very worst notions we can develop about them. Keeping them one-dimensional makes it easier to vilify them.

Nobody is naive enough to believe DeSantis has permanently changed his ways, but credit him for showing his own deeper capacities at a time when compassion was called for.

Most of the political memes or criticisms on social media are overly simplistic. It's easier to throw darts at something that lacks depth. Once we allow ourselves to witness other people's depth, it's not that we're going to sing "Kum ba yah," hold hands and think alike. But we might just treat each other a little more humanely.

The tricky part is to avoid waiting until there's some tragedy that shocks us into treating each other better, at least for a short while. It'd be much better if we did so just because it's the right thing to do.

Print Headline: Familiarity can breed humanity

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