In a troubled world, America ends a year of alarmingly bitter division -- not just along political lines but along those of identity, especially race but to some extent gender, too. Perhaps, in the year to come, we can begin to repair the damage.
The past year was marked by a heightened focus on race- and gender-based violence. Two controversial cases in which unarmed African-American men died as a result of police action -- the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of 43-year-old Staten Island resident Eric Garner, who died after being physically restrained by police -- became symbols for the larger picture of what many say is pervasive racism in law enforcement. When grand juries in both cases voted not to indict the officers, this sparked further outrage. The Pew Research Center has found sharp racial divisions over the issue. An overwhelming 80 percent of blacks but only 20 percent of whites believe the grand jury made the wrong decision in the death of Michael Brown; 90 percent of blacks and 47 percent of whites say the same of Garner's death.
While there are no similar gaps between men and women, gender-war themes have also dominated the news. After a young man named Elliot Rodger went on a shooting rampage in California, the news that his writings and videos revealed an obsessive rage at rejection by women sparked an outpouring of feminist anger online, with women sharing stories of male violence and sexism. Comments that not all men abuse women led to the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter -- and to suggestions that all men are complicit in such abuse. The concept of "rape culture" in modern-day America became a part of mainstream discourse.
On race and gender alike, the polarizing narrative obliterates real-life complexities. These include the overlap of race and class. While critics of racism often suggest that white people routinely get deferential treatment by police even when breaking the law -- a pattern sarcastically dubbed "criming while white" by online activists -- this is a vast exaggeration, especially for lower-class whites or those who do not conform to social conventions. While there is convincing evidence that black males are more likely to experience police harassment and violence, "white privilege" in this area is hardly clear-cut.
The narrative of racism also presumes police guilt where the facts leave plenty of room for doubt. While the stress of police work is no excuse for brutality, we cannot afford to forget that cops frequently have to make quick life-or-death decisions.
The feminist narrative of the "war on women" is even more oversimplified -- leaving out, for instance, the fact that while some traditional attitudes may have condoned violence against women, the norms of chivalry attached a particular stigma to such violence long before feminism. While men commit violent crimes more often than women, they are also its primary victims -- and, especially when it comes to violence in family and relationships, women are perpetrators much more often than is commonly believed.
The "social justice" narratives treat white males as a uniformly privileged group, ignoring the extent to which many problems are shared across racial and gender lines. The conservative response, too often, is to discount the existence of traditional biases altogether -- be it the experience of black men unfairly targeted by the police, or of women who find no recourse against violent abuse.
Can we start listening to each other across these divisions? The political culture of outrage and confrontation does not make it easy. But if there's a time to be optimistic, it's the eve of a new year.