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Columns

How We Move Forward

By Julie Heng
Julie Heng ‘24 lives in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

It is no secret that polarization has increased hostility and even altered perceptions of reality. A new study in Science shows that Democrats’ and Republicans’ antipathy for each other has even surpassed their support for those who vote the same way.

But perhaps certain factors make our country’s polarization appear worse than it is. It has been suggested, for example, that the “unusual bipartisanship” of the 1950s featured intra-party divisions similar to our inter-party divisions that make current times seem more heated. It also seems like politicians often make logical appeals to extremes, and that the highly partisan are often louder than the likely more moderate majority.

From a particular perspective, one that is perhaps increasingly widespread and no doubt seductive, it’s easy to feel like we are more different than we are alike. And over the course of this column, I’ve spent a lot of time examining such differences — from the divide between the sciences and humanities, between academia and the public, and between conviction and compromise.

Yet, despite examining so much that divides us, I actually find myself feeling more encouraged by what unites us — the shared journey of experimentation and collective-betterment that we continue to take up together.

There is an ocean between where we are and where we could be, and all humans are on the same side of that ocean. We share a foundation from the technology and knowledge of our past, and we approach the frontier of the unknown future together, striving to make that future better than today.

We are constantly exploring the bounds of our potential. The way I see it, humans transcended biological evolution the minute we donned furs as coats. Rather than wait for a mutation, we developed tools to defeat predators endowed with greater strength or speed. We did not wait to develop wings in order to fly. Making the impossible possible — whether planting the first seed, building metropolises, or inventing prosthetic limbs — is what ties all people together.

Of course, this is not to say that we should proceed without caution (we all know the Frankenstein’s monsters that can emerge from overeager science projects). Our current rate of technological development is unprecedented, and presumptuously plowing forward without deep moral examination will lead to unintentional consequences. Indeed, the political discourse — often heated and divisive — we have over hydraulic fracturing or genetic engineering is important. But it doesn’t show that we are living in different worlds with different realities to contend with; it shows that we are invested in the same problems and that we all care about the outcomes.

The problem then isn’t that we’re really opposed to one another but that we’ve allowed our tribalism to overwhelm our common cause. Take politics. It’s important to remember that when a person votes, they throw their support behind a series of stances that often don’t reflect their absolute positions — they could theoretically be 51 percent for the party of their choice. The Manichaean rhetoric between parties, then, usually doesn’t reflect the more nuanced and relative policy positions of individuals.

Indeed, during this pandemic, while we did not align as a country politically, we may have grown closer through common experience. In the short term, the pandemic can definitely exacerbate our differences; it would be naive to think otherwise. But the fact that scientists are inventing and testing vaccines at never-before-seen speed, and that the public, alongside experts, is evaluating which demographics deserve access first gives me hope. It’s not easy, but we’re ultimately establishing precedent-setting common ground. That’s how we move forward.

This semester, I was part of Professor David R. Armitage’s “Advice to Young Leaders” seminar. During our last class, we discussed a series of remarkable commencement addresses in Harvard history. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's, from May 2019, stood out. Merkel began by describing her life as a physicist at the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin: Every day, she’d walk along the unfeeling Berlin Wall to and from work. It literally stood in her way, concrete impenetrable.

But the Berlin Wall came down, and all kinds of hope and opportunities rose up.

“Nothing has to stay the way it is,” Merkel said. “Surprise yourself with what is possible.”

I think of those who walked across the Bering Strait, or launched into space, or captured wondrous phrases of the human experience. I think of the Da Vincis and Marie Curies and Barbara McClintocks of the world. And I think of everyone now just trying their best every day in virtual schools and hospitals and nursing homes.

Yes, we are polarized on many fronts. But our collective imagination and progress-seeking have the potential to mend those gaps. If history has taught us anything, it’s that we have incredible possibilities ahead of us — and I look forward to these endless surprises most beautiful.

Julie Heng ‘24 lives in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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