This election has profoundly polarized American politics like never before. People are choosing sides, surrounding themselves with those who are like-minded and letting the divide between the two ideologies grow wider. I’m only 35, but I can see how things have grown worse over the years. Perhaps it’s that I care more about politics now than I used to, or perhaps the internet has accelerated this decay. Either way, combating this new bitterness requires more of each of us. Let me be clear…
If you need proof, read this1, or this2. Both articles show how the other political party is not completely crazy. It makes sense immediately, yet every time I get into a political discussion, my response becomes quickly visceral. The more heated the conversation gets, the more I intuitively feel like the other person is a nincompoop. According to neurologist, Robert Burton, this phenomenon is a biological response to crave certainty as outlined in his book.3 As he puts it:
Our inability to control this response is good to be aware of, but unfortunately, awareness is not going to fix our broken political system.
I see this issue very clearly in another area of my life. This takes a bit of preface to understand where I’m going here, so hang in there with me.
My husband is an atheist, while I am a Christian. We have a small group of couples who meet twice a month to discuss spiritual and religious topics. In our group we recently read a chapter of the book, “Finding God in the Waves,” by Mike McHargue, a Southern Baptist, turned atheist, turned somewhere in between. There are debates online as to whether he is an atheist or a Christian, and McHargue recently told me that he welcomes this debate. At first, I thought his response was odd, that maybe he thrived on the drama. Having discussed his book with our group, I understood why a debate on his belief status is so important to his message.
In our discussion folks immediately drew a line in the sand. My husband and another atheist were very quick to point out that Mike McHargue is not a real atheist. The way they saw it, being a real atheist requires that you think god is an impossibility, whereas McHargue acknowledges his skepticism and his desire to believe. McHargue thinks the idea of god is ridiculous and yet he wants to believe it anyway.
This gray area that McHargue inhabits is really important and my husband’s reaction to it is equally telling. After my hubby and friend sized up McHargue’s intentions, they picked apart the legitimacy of sections in the book. Even the few bits they liked were viewed through the lens of the author’s perceived agenda and framed with the debunking of his main points.
This attitude is the one that the majority of us have taken when it comes to politics. I recently recognized it in myself when I read an article about the election. I found I read the article differently before and after I became aware of who the author would be voting for. This response to each other is building up a highly polarized political system that may linger for years to come, as John Kasich warns:
The instinct to be right is difficult to control, but so often, we are not right. You are not right 100% of the time. Neither am I. We must continue to let others in. Keep the door open long enough to let their influences linger. LISTEN. Really, really listen to what the other person is saying: to understand—not simply to respond. I challenge anyone reading this to give it a try this week. If you need some ground rules, here are some good ones:
- Ask only questions.
- Zip it and listen.
- Do not offer your opinion unless asked for it.
- Politely cut off the conversation when it becomes unproductive.
- Take a note from the good book: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. (James 1:19, New International Version)
In conversations like this, your goal is to understand another person. If you find a few folks that you can do this with, it will only get easier and the conversations will become more and more fruitful. You may find yourself able to talk without getting heated, without reacting defensively. Certainly, you will allow yourself to learn. This is how we grow, and this is how we put our country back together—one conversation at a time.
1 Blanda, S. (2016, January ) The “Other Side” is Not Dumb. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@SeanBlanda/the-other-side-is-not-dumb-2670c1294063#.s9u9g2ftq
2 Linker, D. (2016, October) Millions of People Disagree With Your Political Views. That Does Not Make Them Moral Monsters. Retrieved from http://theweek.com/articles/653147/millions-people-disagree-political-views-that-doesnt-make-moral-monsters
3 Burton, R. A. (2008) On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. New York, NY: St. Martins Press.
4 On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. (2008, March) Retrieved from http://us.macmillan.com/onbeingcertain/robertaburton