When I was preparing to write this column, many controversies made their appearance on the apocalyptic stage of American politics. Friends and family barraged me with requests to give my opinion on each topic. When I said no, citing controversy, most stood down. One response, however, stuck with me.
“Why? Are you afraid to stand up for what you believe in?”
“Of course not,” I said. But it’s not worth the fight. Voicing my controversial opinion on a controversial topic would be purposeless social suicide. The political-social climate that exists in the mainstream now is so polarized that I would only be lumped into and lost in one of two extremes. What a shame, I thought. I am so afraid of being mischaracterized I’ve judged fear more rational than bravery.
In 2014, Pew Research Center released a study which found more Americans than ever believed their opposite political party was a threat to the survival of the nation. The amount of people who share consistent ideological beliefs is growing, leaving less room for agreement amongst the voting populace. More people also tend to identify themselves as more extreme than moderate, and there is a rising tide of mutual antipathy. The consequence of all this? Political antagonism. When the majority of political discussions happening are negative, no positive result will occur. We see this promulgated by the increasingly polarized sides of the political spectrum.
Think about the last time you went home for Thanksgiving dinner. What topics did you steer away from? Why? The mention of any political figure in the vicinity of my dining room table is enough to induce an anxiety attack. It’s polite not to discuss politics, even if the status quo is ripe for discussion.
Here’s the thing: anxiety sucks. Antagonism sucks. Avoiding politics at the dinner table while your family tries to determine who you voted for sucks. And so I want to offer a solution that isn’t one, really. If anything, it’s a reminder.
Listen to people when they voice their beliefs. Beneath harsh words and combative language lie emotions rarely detected — things like fear, distrust, compassion, pride. No one is immune to them. And so we must identify them as the very core of most perspectives. Once we grapple with the nucleus of each position in mind, we will make progress toward a resolution that forecasts a more peaceful social climate. From there, positive change is more likely to bloom.
It is important to recognize that every person’s perspective is valid because they experience truth. Are there some perspectives which are more valid than other perspectives? Yes. But we should never denigrate a person’s worth due to their perspective, because that position is coming from the mind of someone that could be you. Once you affirm the value of the person you’re conversing with, you create a future in which, even if disagreement occurs, mutual respect remains.
Psychologist Carl Rogers said, “The great majority of us cannot listen; we find ourselves compelled to evaluate; because listening is too dangerous.” Change and resolution have bravery in common. Sometimes it is courageous not to fold, and others it is more valiant to admit flaw. Instead of defensively clinging to our inerrant beliefs, we should try to hear what is beneath the waters of every murky political conversation. It’s scary to consider something different from ourselves. It’s hard to change and easier to cling to the bannister of our self-lauded assumptions. But I think we can all agree that it is even more horrifying to sit down next to your parents and try not to talk about your father’s recent purchase of a MAGA hat.