In 2010, I knelt next to a family member as they placed my laptop in their hands.
We spent 17 harrowing minutes watching WikiLeaks’ collateral killing video, which includes footage of a 2007 Baghdad airstrike in which US forces killed at least a dozen civilians, including two Reuters journalists, taunting them as they opened fire.
Tears welled up in the corners of his eyes. Seeing the US armed forces firing on innocent people, they inflicted horror even as they laughed at injuring children in the process.
For many, the Collateral Murder video was a wake-up call. For others, like the person sitting next to me, it did the opposite.
“It’s not real,” they said.
The words hit me like a slap.
“This can’t be real. I just… I don’t believe it.”
In a last-ditch effort to repair another relationship broken by political differences, I’ve come up with a video. Instead of building bridges, however, it highlighted the widening divide between my past and present.
I Grew up in a predominantly white, conservative bubble in rural Indiana. I went to church three times a week and led prayer groups around my public school flag. I’m extremely proud of my country, cheered when George W. Bush won the 2000 election by “voting” for him in a middle school mock election, and mercilessly argued his side four years later after a classmate dared to criticize the current president.
In a high school full of cows and corn fields, I found my faith. This is what I knew—what my parents knew, what my friends knew, what my church knew—and nothing else could convince me.
Attending a private Christian university less than an hour away changed everything. As a freshman, I eagerly signed the school’s “Community Life Agreement,” promising to abstain from all vices (sex, gambling, alcohol) until after graduation. I agree with the campus-wide ban on R-rated movies and non-choreographed dance. I attended mandatory chapel twice a week, went to the local church on Sundays, and instead of reveling in the sheltered environment, I thrived.
Everything had to stay the same, and for countless students it did. But after my first year, while my fellow students were searching for answers, I began to search for questions.
I had a British academic advisor who taught from an American perspective, and whose classes challenged the glitzy American idealism I held so dear. I learned how Cambodia was carpet-bombed during the Vietnam War, over 2.7 million tons of bombs were dropped on the country over eight years, and I was shocked to learn that this paled in comparison to the Allied 2 million tons of bombs combined. Factoring in the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, it also fell.
Then, I learned about the My Lai massacre, in which American soldiers raped, tortured, and killed hundreds of innocent Vietnamese people while systematically ignoring numerous orders to stop the killings.
The more I learned, the more I realized that my Christian faith was incompatible with the so-called Christian nation in which I was raised. The Bible told me to care for the sick, the hungry, and the poor, while my fellow Republicans argued that universal health care, food stamps, and poverty were the result of laziness. As the curtain recedes, I realize that American exceptionalism is not a God-given duty to protect democracies around the world, but an illusion sold to the American people that fuels our military-industrial complex. And we were falling for it hook, line and sinker.
I tried to share what I learned with my friends and family, they wrote me off as a lost cause. My parents joked that I had become a “liberal,” and didn’t wait until I left my conservative Christian college to get things back to normal.
Personally, I wanted to have a conversation about religion and politics and was short. Online, they were evil. Social media was particularly cruel, and the older members of my church were the most bloodthirsty. No matter how delicately I tried to negotiate, share resources or ask questions, our conversation ended in bloodshed. Once the personal attacks began—led by friends, church members, and sometimes family members—I gave up.
After completing my degree and moving to the UK to do a masters in history, I realized that I could no longer put America on the pedestal I had put it on. Life in England reinforced my changing outlook. Not so different from the people I grew up with – my friend group had both socialists and blue bloods running in the same circles – even the Christians I met surprised me. Gone was the puritanical attitude obsessed with the battle between sin and virtue, and in its place were the most welcoming and warm-hearted people I had ever met.
Returning to America in late 2012 was a culture shock. I moved back in with my parents while applying for jobs only to find that my picturesque hometown no longer felt as safe as it once did. The open-mindedness I encountered at university was replaced by bad political discourse, where even a kind neighbor warned me to be a “good” kind of journalist and made me realize that – if I wasn’t careful – I would be known as the enemy.
It doesn’t matter if I grew up in the same zip code, went to the same school, went to the same church. A simple difference in thought was enough to put a target on my back, and I knew I needed to get out. I took a job in marketing that took me out of state and moved to Nashville, finding a small liberal pocket in the Bible Belt, where I met countless others who shared the same experience.
One woman, Mary*, contacted me after reading a long conversation I had with another Republican on Facebook. A pastor’s wife in a medium-sized congregation in a conservative state and lifelong Republican felt shocked by the growing support for Donald Trump.
“I feel like Trump is using evangelical Christians,” she wrote in her initial message. “[But] I don’t know how people can think these things are okay. “
We recently reconnected, and she told me how she had watched in shock as many people around her began to follow Trump with what she described as “cultural” fervor, some even believing that only Republicans could be considered Christians. While she and her husband refused to express political views overtly from the pulpit, she described the anger she saw in some people as evidence that something was wrong.
“With the family, it was very difficult ’cause we all grew up strong Republicans,” he explained. “So for any of us to come away from completely disagreeing with a candidate 100%, it was like I went to the other side.”
In the end, she was asking herself many of the questions I had, especially when she began to support people close to her, including her siblings and daughter, with radically different views. It was heartbreaking to watch, she told me, and while she tried to remain optimistic, she said it felt like the whole world was changing around her, and nothing made sense.
“I was like, ‘Where are these crazy comments coming from?’ It’s not fundamental, it’s not Christian,” she said. “Why are people following Trump so blindly? What am I missing?”
For casual observers like Mary and I, it can be mind-boggling to watch someone ignore what you perceive as solid evidence. Unfortunately, logic has nothing to do with it.
“Many people hold deeply held beliefs because they are logical, and this is often an error of judgment. Deeply held beliefs are often held for other reasons entirely,” explains psychologist Julie Gurner. “Things like strong emotional attachment, social or personal reasons, and group membership make people particularly resilient to changing beliefs.”
Much of this boils down to cognitive biases, subconscious tendencies in human thinking and reasoning that influence our judgment, decision-making, and even our behavior. Confirmation bias, for example, is one of the heaviest hitters: our brains tend to seek out information that supports our existing beliefs and ignore information that challenges them.
The Internet made this phenomenon worse, something I witnessed first hand as my friends and family members started using Facebook as a source of news. I initially tried to serve as a friendly fact-checker, happy to put my history degrees to work. Many people ignored me; The burden of proof seemed to be gone. If something got enough likes and sounded right, it was all-easy to hit the shares.
Christina Lerman, principal scientist at the University of Southern California’s Informatics Institute, says her research has uncovered what she calls the “majority fallacy” — what happens when we start to overestimate popularity when social media distorts our perception of what people believe. of information. In some cases, it can even lead people to believe that things are more trusted and accepted than they really are.
This is what happened to my friends and family. Before last year I didn’t have a television, so I never watched the mainstream or cable news networks, while my parents tuned in to Fox News. As a millennial, I’ve lived by the warning drilled into us from a young age — don’t believe everything you read online — and been disappointed to see others ignore that same advice. I did my best to get most of my news by following local and international journalists on Twitter, but even that was tinged with bias. As my social network grew – and the more active it became – it became easier to get trapped in an echo chamber.
It’s something I’m still wary of, especially given the growing political divide. Misinformation is irritating, and I don’t want to fall into the same trap I’ve seen so many others claim.
I don’t go to church anymore, but I still lead every conversation with a conservative Christian with, “I grew up in church.” It’s a trick I’ve learned over the years that reminds people that we’re not so different while making it easier for the conversation to progress from there. I’ve slowly rebuilt my relationship with my parents – although I’m scared of them after reading this article – and I’m working up the courage to reach out to my brother after a particularly brutal argument about politics on Facebook led to our divorce. First.
I haven’t stopped turning them all back to the centrist beliefs they hold. We still talk about politics from time to time, and I try to start each conversation with empathy. I think instead of railing against what they are doing or saying or believing, I take a deep breath and think about why.
Why do they hold this position? Why do they feel this way? Why are my beliefs different?
I remind myself that beliefs are heavily influenced by feelings, not just facts, and I try to connect the dots.
My relationship with my family is still rocky, but — thanks to time and therapy — it’s one I’ve come to terms with. I’ve learned to surround myself with a family of my choosing, people who share my beliefs, challenging me to go beyond my limits and grow, and it’s made it easier for me to reach out to my friends and relatives back home on my terms.
We may not have the same relationship as we used to, and that relationship may not look like what either of us wanted, but that’s okay. Regardless, it feels good to know I’m still trying.