A Path Through Polarization

There is a lot of rhetoric out there right now about how to deal with politics. In particular it is something we aren’t supposed to talk about in most settings. Even among people you agree with it isn’t quite a safe topic.

 

I’ve heard the term “polarized” a lot lately. Sure. Massive extremes in thinking. I think one of the problems is that the solutions also seem to be extreme. Seems like the most common solutions are:

1) avoid politics at all costs

2) those who disagree with me should go away

3) those who disagree with me should get their head out of their butt and realize I am right

 

So here’s the thing. I believe that the solution to any polarization is an extremely difficult and complex skill to master: listening. Listening is extremely difficult. Talking is pretty easy. Yelling and snapping is even easier. It is the hardest thing in the world to listen to someone you don’t agree with and bite your tongue.

 

So if you believe that your views are right, that you have the high ground, fine. But do you understand the other side? Like really understand it? If you really truly understand someone’s beliefs, you will have empathy for them. They are a person. The most heinous acts in history have happened because of dehumanization. Those being oppressed are not considered human by the oppressors. If you don’t have close friends who belong to an opposite party from you, you are flirting with dehumanizing them.

 

Recently I watched the final season of Man in the High Castle. If you aren’t familiar with the show, it is a sort of alternate history supposing that the Allies lost World War II and the German Reich rules the east side of North America while Japan rules the west. I won’t give any spoilers, but you can imagine this story is rife with dehumanization. It caused me to wonder if I was faced with a decision to hide Jews in my home during World War II, knowing I was putting my family in danger, would I do that.

 

I really struggled with this because my original answer seemed to be coming up as no, and that worried me. But then I realized I was thinking about it the wrong way. See, I have several close friends who are Jewish. And as soon as I asked myself whether I would hide them, the answer became a very solid yes. It’s easy to think of Republicans or Democrats as evil when you dehumanize them as a group. When the enemy is faceless, you don’t have to care. It is when there is a real breathing person in front of you that things suddenly change.

 

Would you have the courage to try it? Sometime this week, ask someone about politics or something else you think you disagree with them about. And here’s the hard part. You don’t get to talk. You have to bite your tongue. You don’t get to express even a single thought about your opinions. We waste most of our mental capacity in conversation thinking about the next thing we are going to say. So remove that. Don’t worry about what you would say because you aren’t allowed to say it. Instead, devote all of your mental faculties to listening.

 

You can ask clarifying questions. But not leading questions. It is possible to ask questions that express your opinion. “But don’t you agree all politicians are corrupt?” would be such a question. You aren’t allowed those kinds of questions. Your job isn’t to fight. Your job is to try to get to a place of understanding.

 

If you don’t feel ready to do this in person, here’s an alternate idea. Watch the “other” news channel. Like the one you know is spouting propaganda for “the other side”. It removes a bit of the temptation to talk back. It’s ok if it makes you angry. That’s expected. Can you fight through that? Can you have the humility to listen to “those people” and try to understand them? Understand who they are and where their beliefs come from. Don’t just write them off as corrupt, morally-compromised idiots. Consider why they believe what they believe.

 

The world doesn’t need any more people who cuss and spit at the opposite party. It needs more people who are willing to listen before they speak. Will you be one of those people?

 

 

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