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In a Country That Can't Agree, What Happens Next? 

John Wallis says political divisions have become more polarizing — and personal.


John Wallis says political divisions have become more polarizing — and personal.

College student John Wallis returned for a couple weeks in October to his boyhood home in rural Missouri, a place he does not speak about with high spirits. On these rare visits, he has a mental clock ticking in his head, counting down to the time when he can hit the road back to St. Louis.

Wallis began to resent his hometown of Neosho during his junior year of high school. He had begun arguing with others over politics, and he says he heard classmates say nasty things about students of color.

Neosho, a town of about 12,000, sits in the rural southwest corner of the state. The politics are conservative — Donald Trump won Newton County with 77 percent of the vote in 2016 and 78 percent in 2020 — and Wallis' emerging progressivism wasn't well received. When he helped organize a Black Lives Matter protest there in 2016, he was threatened, he says. It still scares him to go back.

Some of Wallis' conflict at home exists within his own family. One night during his October visit, he and his sister ordered Popeye's for dinner and their conversation drifted into politics. A chat over who they planned on voting for in the presidential election did not end as casually as it began.

They agreed on not voting for Donald Trump. Then, Wallis recalls, his sister said she thought Joe Biden was a pedophile because of a video she watched on YouTube. Wallis says it became impossible to have a civil discussion after that.

Wallis' parents suggested he and his sister stop talking about politics, but it has become harder for him to relate to people at home. Now back in St. Louis, he emphasizes that his next visit for the holidays will only be for a week.

Wallis used to have a close relationship with his sister. In recent years, he says, they have talked less and less. He tries to change the subject to avoid conflict any time she brings up politics.

He chuckles as he recalls the argument in October, but he sees it as part of a larger issue of polarization that has had serious implications in his life.

Wallis, who announced to his family he was gay on his last trip home, does not shy away from expressing his opinion on politics and LGBTQ rights. His Facebook profile picture is outlined with the rainbow colors adopted by LGBTQ communities, and his background is a Black Lives Matter logo and photo.

He struggles to find middle ground with his hometown crowd. The divide has become so deep that he says he does not plan on ever going back for an extended time.

Wallis' clash with his sister is only the beginning of a long list of damaged or tarnished relationships that have deteriorated in recent years. After COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd, the already hostile environment became worse than ever.

"It's those kinds of events that happened in 2020 that made it so much more polarized than 2016," Wallis says. "And that's what has caused a lot of the rifts in my relationships."

A student at Webster University, he says the split started with social media. A controversial post would lead to shares, comments and uncivil arguments, all through a keyboard that makes it easy to talk and much harder to listen to a differing viewpoint.

Wallis hasn't given up. He still hopes to repair family relationships going forward despite the differences they hold.

Division on key issues is not new in the United States. We have fought each other in a civil war, argued over women's suffrage and suffered through Prohibition. The civil rights movement successes of the 1960s are often viewed through a sense of nostalgia that tends to obscure the reality of police dog bites, fire hoses aimed at young protesters and bloody beatings on an Alabama bridge. We are not a nation that always gets along.

This year, we've experienced three polarizing issues, each of which would have been historic on its own.

Start with a contentious presidential election that grew increasingly bitter through the year, hitting levels of discord that have yet to subside. Those political divisions soon became entwined in the United States' disjointed response to a pandemic that upended the economy, killed more than 300,000 Americans and sparked endless disagreements about the best way to handle it.

In the middle of it all, Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. The footage of a white officer pressing his knee against Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes as Floyd's life slipped away ignited a summer of protests in cities across the country.

A major difference between previous generations' disputes and ones today is social media. It adds an entirely new dimension to conflict that can make it inescapable and allows fake news to spread like wildfire. Fact and fiction have morphed together, making it hard for us to see through the blurred lines.

A Pew Research Center study published in July concluded that Americans who rely on social media for news were less knowledgeable on current issues and more likely to hear about a conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was created in a lab. Twenty percent of American adults consume political information primarily through social media, according to the study.

Saint Louis University Associate Clinical Professor Shannon Cooper-Sadlo. - COURTESY SHANNON COOPER-SADLO
  • Saint Louis University Associate Clinical Professor Shannon Cooper-Sadlo.

Shannon Cooper-Sadlo says one problem with social media is that anyone can find information that supports their beliefs. An associate clinical professor of social work at Saint Louis University and therapist at Foundations for Change, Cooper-Sadlo has seen the impact social media has had on interpersonal relationships.

She says the collective trauma the country has experienced puts everyone on edge. "When you talk about trauma of any kind, you're talking about people being in a constant state of fight or flight," she says. Everyone constantly feels like they are being attacked by others, she adds. For some, this can lead to aggressiveness. For others, it causes isolation that leads to depression.

Washington University Assistant Professor of Political Science Taylor Carlson offers some better ways to go about taking in political information on social media. Carlson studies the way people digest politics and how the information is spread. She says determining the best way to navigate political information is "a million-dollar question," because everyone's routine is different. But there are ways to make your internet news diet more productive for you and everyone else.

First, Carlson says, be cautious about the source of the information. Think about the possible biases and the credibility. The next step is to question our own biases as the consumer, she adds. Our evaluation of information can be shaped by our ideological viewpoints.

Washington University Assistant Professor Taylor Carlson. - COURTESY TAYLOR CARLSON
  • Washington University Assistant Professor Taylor Carlson.

Cooper-Sadlo offers a different social media strategy to her therapy patients, one that she has adopted herself: Turn it off, she says. The only reason she gets on Facebook or Instagram is to look at pictures of puppies and cats. If that is not an option, just take a break from it every once in a while, she suggests.

Cooper-Sadlo says she believes we will be able to move past the election talk going into 2021. The next question, she says, is how we work to restore relationships that have crumbled after a long year of increasing polarization.

"Rather than continuing to divide, I think we have to come to the table with empathy and compassion," Cooper-Sadlo says.

In Wallis' case, some relationships are worth saving, such as the one with his sister. Others, though, may be permanently damaged. Wallis says he has an aunt who does not believe in equal rights for the LGBTQ community, and Wallis is gay.

He told his family he was gay in October, two years after coming out as bisexual. This was not an easy task for someone who grew up religious, which he says caused him to have internalized homophobia for a long time. That did not stop him from opening up about his sexuality.

For Wallis, the relationship with his aunt comes down to a discussion he is not willing to have — whether he has the right to exist as an equal with the rest of society.

John Doggette sees a problem with the way people go about their disagreements in today's world.

The longtime mediator has listened to thousands of people's stories, and he has learned that most people don't actually listen when others are speaking.

He is reminded of this over and over again. Doggette decided to dedicate his life more than two decades ago to helping others through community mediation. He moved to St. Louis thirteen years ago from Knoxville, Tennessee, where he had worked in conflict resolution since the mid-1990s. In Missouri, he began as a volunteer for the Mennonite Peace Center and has since founded the Conflict Resolution Center and Community Mediation Services of St. Louis.

Now 80 years old, he speaks to the Riverfront Times over the phone as he sits in a recliner in his home. Doggette is an unusual person by his own estimation. When he is done with the interview, he will note it in a log he keeps of every person he talks to. Most of the work he has done during his years in St. Louis has been as a volunteer. That includes his attempts to broker understanding in Ferguson following the killing of Michael Brown in 2014.

Leaders of the city signed a Department of Justice consent decree after Brown's death that called for citizens and police to resolve their conflicts through a mediation service. Doggette was at the head of the efforts, attending more than a hundred meetings directly following the killing.

His attempt to help conflicting sides understand each other was cut short in 2016 when he says no one in the city of Ferguson or the police department responded to a plan to use his services to continue mediation efforts between residents and police. A major issue post-Ferguson was that people did not want to understand where others were coming from, according to Doggette.

Official and unofficial leaders, he says, were not ready to give up their control. He wishes mediation could have been more prominent in the process of healing wounds after 2014.

"No one ever really understood the importance of what we were trying to do and the need for bringing people together," he says.

Despite the frustrations of Ferguson, Doggette still believes in the work. He stresses the importance of active listening. There is not always a need to form a counter argument, he says. Recognizing you do not always need to defend your point of view can help to understand someone else.

"Bite your tongue until it bleeds," Doggette advises.

Coming to a consensus on differing viewpoints has not always been the path Wallis has taken in his family relationships. He says he is not willing to compromise on his beliefs regarding social justice, even if that means cutting off family members for good.

But that isn't what Wallis likes to focus on. He holds onto the relationships he has kept and the ones that could have a brighter future. Despite their hostilities, Wallis believes he and his sister will work toward a better understanding.

One thing that bonds Wallis and his sister is their shared view on equal rights for the LGBTQ community. It's something that makes them more alike than different and may be a way to bring them together in the future.

Wallis admits he is sometimes closed minded and that having the discussions with family is difficult. Doggette sees situations like these as an opportunity for people to listen. Maybe not to agree, but to simply understand.

At the end of a twenty-minute interview with the RFT, he suggests that is the essence of it all.

"That's the important part of your story, right?" Doggette says. "Having good conversations with people and keep them joyous."

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