“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” Robertson Davies, Tempest-Tost
It’s been just over 6 months since the election of Donald Trump. Historically, once an election is over people pretty much get back to their pre-election lives. But not this time. If you’re on Facebook as much as I am, you’ve noticed the political posts are almost as common as they were before the election. If you watch the news, you’ve seen the angry town hall meetings. Life has not gotten back to normal.
In the past, we had religious, racial, economic class, physical abilities, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural differences that divided us. And those are still with us, but today, the most most powerful, passionate, and apparently insurmountable difference between us is political party affiliation. Pew Research has documented the growing trend of political polarization, and each year more and more Democrats call Republicans “close-minded” and more Republicans call Democrats “lazy”.
Here is what I know for sure…. We’re not that different. No one really disagrees on values. I don’t know anyone who says, “I want children to starve in the street.” Or “I want crime rates to go up.” By and large, we all want a world where people have the opportunity to reach their full potential regardless of where they were born. By and large, we all want to live in a safe world, where we can get care if we are sick, where we can get a good education, and have a good job. We all want our water to be pure and our air to be clean. What we disagree on are the strategies that will make that happen.
Here is what I know for sure…. We’re not that different. Underneath the anger, and there is plenty of anger on both sides, is pain and fear. That’s a fundamental law of human nature. It’s hard to say, “What’s wrong with me? I’m a good person, I work hard, I try hard. Why do I keep failing? I feel insignificant. I have no control. I’ve been left behind. No one sees me. I’m judged for where I live, where I work, what I wear, what I drive.” Or “What is the world becoming? I don’t understand the world I live in anymore. What will happen to my children?” Or “If things don’t change for me, I’m going to lose my house, my family, my sense of purpose. What am I getting out of bed for in the morning?” Those things are hard to say. But it’s easy to get angry. It’s easy to yell. It’s easy to demean another person. All around this country, people are walking around with broken hearts and pretending that they’re just angry.
Here is what I know for sure…. Democracy and civilization requires conversation and collaboration. Opposing political party affiliation is only a barrier to talking to and appreciating people if we let it be. Here are 3 strategies for talking to people of a different political party (or religion, race, economic class, physical ability, gender, sexual orientation or cultural experience) than you.
- I recommend using a phrase I first heard from Rhonda Magee, a professor of law at the University of San Francisco. She says to say silently to yourself, “This person is just like me. They love and have been loved. They have been hurt. They have known loss. This person is just like me.” This phrase reminds you that this person you are about to engage with is so much more than their party affiliation. Just like you are more than your party affiliation. They might be a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a little league coach, a lover of animals, an appreciator of nature– and hundreds of other interests and concerns. Yes, you may disagree on politics. You may even disagree on dozens of specific political positions, but there are hundreds of things you can agree on, interests you share, or experiences you can identify with. These commonalities can far outweigh our differences– if you give them the chance to do so.
- Before you share your opinion or offer your witty retort, say, “Tell more more.” Do this a lot. Almost after any point they make. This does two important things. First, it gives them the opportunity to elaborate and clarify, so they can feel like they had their say. You want to be heard, so give them the courtesy of being heard first. Second, it keeps you from listening just to respond. You already know what you’re going to say next. You’re going to say, “Tell me more.” Now you’ve freed up that mental energy that you can direct to listening to what they’re saying.
- Embrace the discomfort. While I was reading Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit by Parker Palmer, I had an ah-ha! moment. I’ve tried hard to make a regular practice of talking with people I disagree with, but sometimes I noticed it didn’t feel good. I’d have this tension inside my chest that sometimes felt like anger or hurt, and after reading this book, I realized that this feeling is normal. Palmer writes that in order for democracy to flourish, we must first appreciate the value of the “other”. The “other” fleshes out our own perspectives, fills in the gaps of our own experiences, and broadens our understandings. They have the ability to expand our knowledge, our tools, our solutions. Collaborating with the other unleashes creative possibility that allows democracy to thrive and helps us solve the big problems we’re facing. But here’s the rub. That’s hard. It’s doesn’t feel good to hold your own perspective and the opposing perspective at the same time. Our human nature wants things neat, simple, and complete. But holding two competing thoughts is none of those things. My ah-ha! moment was when Palmer encourages his reader to learn how to hold that tension creatively. We’re not supposed to clean it up and close it down. It is possible to hold that tension between your own deeply held world view and the “other” deeply held world view and look for the insight, the energy, the possibility, the kernel of truth. It’s not easy. I’m still practicing. But it’s helped a lot once I realized that it’s not supposed to feel good.
Anger can be justified. There are such things as facts. There is right and wrong. But focusing on this first before the connection is made makes all parties, yourself included, double down on their positions and their isolation. Nothing changes, and we get more polarization. If it’s more important for you to be right, then stick to anger. But if you care about change, try caring about the people you want to change.
Anger can be useful. By all means, use your anger to move yourself to action. But if you’re using that anger to attack people with different political views, you’re taking the easy way out. Do the hard work of having conversations. It’s in the conversations that relationships are formed. It’s in relationship that we discover what we have in common and how we can work together. It’s a fact of civilization that it is made up of people with a wide range of beliefs and needs, and democracy works when we can work together for our common good and betterment.