Did you know there are 856 languages spoken in the island nation of Papua New Guinea? The entire nation is the size of California and has about 7 million people. Think about that, on average only a little over 8,000 people can understand each other in their native language. Among the reasons there are so many languages is the island is divided by dense jungles and narrow valleys. Each tribe is isolated in its own corner with little contact with other groups.
I fear America is becoming like Papua New Guinea by allowing ourselves to become culturally isolated from one another. This is particularly true when it comes to political ideology and its relationship with culture. I currently live in an a farming culture, but I have also lived in Ohio’s Western Reserve, Urban areas, Appalachia, and University settings (including a setting of many different nationalities). I point this out, not because I am extremely cosmopolitan, nor to say I have it all figured out. Rather, when I turn on social media feeds I see posts from across the political and cultural spectrum. And to be bluntly honest often they are childish in their treatment of other sub-cultures within this country. As I push back on the individuals who are responsible for the post, it often becomes clear that they have never truly engaged with anyone from the other side of the disagreement.
One example I will never forget came during the 2016 Presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton said something like, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners out of work.” At the time I was living in a community full of coal miners, many of whom we already fearful of losing their jobs and especially since they were too young to retire but too old to seriously consider a career change. One of my friends posted to social media that he was voting for Hillary because he could not endorse the disrespectful things Mr. Trump was saying about certain groups within this country. (Notice: this is merely an illustration and does not endorse or condemn political candidates). He lives in an urban environment and is extremely disconnected from the coal mining town where I was. Mrs. Clinton’s words never struck him as offensive because he was disconnected from that sub-culture. Likewise, I find that often Mr. Trump (who can be extremely controversial) is understood differently by differing sub-cultures with whom I have contact.
The reality seems to be that all Americans associate with the “American culture” but we often understand that culture differently based on how our sub-culture operates. And because we are not taking the time to understand and appreciate other sub-cultures we are becoming dismissive of them. My friend was very dismissive of the coal-mining town because he had no contact with its culture, he only sees it in caricature. I see this often on the other end of the spectrum in the farming community I live in. These people are often well meaning, but lack real knowledge of sub-cultures like immigrants, and so they often do not see how their words and actions impact that community.
I am sure I am still guilty of this blindness, I have many times had to stop and reexamine my positions because I was detached from one group or another. And Honestly I do not know if there is a solution for pulling these various sub-cultures closer together. However, we all can slow down and recognize that we are in competing cultures. We can also recognize that even if the other side is wrong on an issue it is often because they are giving undue influence to a legitimate argument. We must begin to ask what motivates that sub-culture to act or think the way they do, without dismissing them as “They’re just Idiots.” What motivates that culture to think the way they do, why do people in the cities generally care so much about eliminating fossil fuels? Why do rural Americans care so much about gun rights? True answers to these questions come in the form of listening to the culture tell its own story.
If we choose to listen to one another and learn a little about these other sub-cultures we will grow into a melting pot. If we fail we will become like Papua New Guinea where we are all stuck on the same land mass, and completely isolated from one another because we cannot understand each other’s language.