Fellow Episcopalian Bill Bishop penned The Big Sort, a fascinating work describing the increased clustering of America into like-minded communities, in 2008 following years of observation and social science research. Startling demographic data reveal that over the past several decades, Americans have situated themselves into sameness at increased rates. It’s happening with little regard as to the adverse consequences for community.
It is as if we are ‘ants marching’ mindlessly to a nearby anthill. Musician Dave Matthews of the Dave Matthews Band captured the essence of this notion when he composed his widely acclaimed Ants Marching in the 1990’s. A read of some of the lyrics suggests that we are so consumed by ourselves and the hurry of everyday life, that we are losing touch with the importance of community.
“And all the little ants are marching. Red and black antennas waving. They all do it the same. They all do it the same way.”
The central theme of Bishop’s work is that Americans have become masters at sorting themselves into communities of the like-minded. Strategic choices are made when we’re deciding where to live; whom and what issues we support politically; and yes, even where we’re going to worship. We not only sort our beings; we also sort our ideas – a phenomenon described in Bishop’s work as idea segregation. Such skilled organization and manipulation of ourselves and our ideas has resulted in this ‘big sort’.
“People in every direction. No words exchanged; no time to exchange.”
As we cluster into homogeneous groups, we struggle to find the time and space to come to know and understand others. Clouded by the minutiae of our own busyness, in our haste we may not realize that the person asking “how are you” may actually be receptive to a response varying from the all too typical “good” or “fine”. Most have desires to connect with others in some way; however, it’s awfully difficult to do so when encounters with those dissimilar from us amount to little more than chance. We’re people of a holy God, yet sometimes we behave like we belong to warring tribes. At the very least, often we seem indifferent to difference.
“But we never say a thing. And these crimes between us grow deeper.”
The calendar year will soon be in the rear-view mirror, and my hunch is Bishop would observe we are more impeccably well-sorted than before. It’s no wonder why we can’t all just seem to get along. Our differing cultural and political perspectives, reinforced by the segregation of spaces and ideas, give way to increased polarity. Suspicions about one another are heightened by media and social media channels, which indeed are designed to encourage our sorting tendencies.
Bishop cites political scientists’ findings that Americans have become even firmer in their convictions. This works to expand the gap between moderate and extreme worldviews – which then yields less opportunity for tolerance and understanding. We perceive that we are far more different than we are similar. Even in times of tragedy and intense national despair — when most reasonable minds might agree that it is time for unity to prevail over division — we retreat into our comfortable corners, despite our Lord’s commandment to love others.
“Take these chances.”
Soon, ballots will be cast for the political candidates that align most closely with our interests and worldviews. Come Election Day, some will excitedly arrive at their local precinct, while others will be less enthused about their options. Some may be compelled to cross traditional party lines, while others may be more eager about the prospect of casting a vote against candidates, rather than for candidates. Whatever your position this time around, please just be mindful that this song and dance doesn’t happen just anywhere. Great as our democracy is, there are still only so many chances afforded to us to make our voices heard, and our votes counted.
March on up to the polls, not monotonously like our frantic little ant friends, but rather with purposeful and community-centric intentions. Take this particular chance to stand up for what you believe is most right. For what is right now, and for what might be right for the future of our beloved nation. No matter what transpires come this November, ultimately my prayer is for community and unity to outlast self-centeredness and division.