Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Protesting Protests: Can't We Just Talk Instead?

Photo by Roselle Park Post
If you read my previous blog post, you'll understand why I suddenly feel compelled to talk about politics. It's not that I love confrontation and am itching for an argument, it's that I believe it's my civic duty (which until now I've been largely shirking).

All the political and historical reading I've been doing lately has convinced me that in order for America to move forward and deal with the many problems facing us--foreign and domestic, economic and social, etc.--we must become unified.

Stop laughing, I'm serious!

Ok, let's set our sights a little lower--we need to at least become less polarized. We have to be able to come together and find common ground so we can work out solutions to our problems.

I know, I know, it sounds hopelessly naive. I totally get that, especially after reading about all the discord that has been present in our nation's politics from the beginning. There will always be disagreement--that's to be expected. The question is, how do we deal with that disagreement and get things done?

Protesting Protests

Right now it seems like the most popular method of dealing with people we disagree with is to protest against them. Grab your signs, your bullhorns, and your riot gear, and let's go yell at the opposition!

I'm not saying protesting is wrong, but is it really the best way to change hearts and minds? It appears to me that most protests only succeed in solidifying both sides in their positions, further polarizing our country, and making it even harder to move forward.

So here's an idea: let's try talking to each other about the issues we disagree about.

I know, that's so hard. Who likes talking about politics? Those discussions often turn nasty, feelings get hurt, and friends stop talking to each other.

But I think it's really important that we do start talking with our friends about politics again (apparently it used to happen all the time). It's easy to demonize those you disagree with, to assume that their motives are evil, or they are stupid or uneducated--at least when they are random faces on the screen, or anonymous trolls commenting on news articles. It's much harder to demonize a friend--someone you already know and care about and trust.

I get it; it's easier to remain blissfully ignorant about each others' politics. Otherwise you might be forced to either change your opinion of them, or accept the fact that it is possible for normal, sane people to have differing opinions! 

Why Do We Disagree?

Demonizing opponents overlooks the fact that disagreements usually stem from different worldviews, not different levels of intelligence or education or evilness.

We each have a worldview; a set of pre-existing beliefs that shape the way we perceive the world. When people with different worldviews look at the same thing, they truly do see it differently. Their worldviews color their perception of it. Their differing conclusions are not the result of an attempt to deceive, but an attempt to explain the evidence in a way that fits their worldview.

This is why both sides can honestly say the same facts support their opposing worldviews.

In order to discuss issues with those we disagree with, we must understand this vital principle: if we have different worldviews we will see the world differently. So we can either:
  1. Refuse to acknowledge the other person's worldview and continue to demonize their perspective, preventing any discussion
  2. Attempt to change the other person's worldview (and often the discussion ends if they refuse)
  3. Accept and try to understand differences in worldviews so a mutually agreeable conclusion can be reached
So far method #1 seems to be the most popular one in use today, and we can see how successful that has been.

While method #2 might ultimately be the only way to make long-term changes in our culture, it is difficult because worldviews are very hard to change. Yes, let's discuss the relative merits of our worldviews, and may the best worldview win in the end, but in the meantime, how do we make progress right now?

Method #3 is, in my mind, the most practical way forward--at least it's a good place to start.

A Few Caveats

I am not saying that all worldviews are right, or that every perception of reality is correct. I'm simply acknowledging the fact that people perceive reality differently, and awareness of this is essential if we are going to discuss anything. 

For example, let's say you're wearing blue glasses and I'm wearing red glasses, and you say the ball is green and I say it's orange. Are we both right? We are both being honest about our perceptions, but because the color of our glasses is skewing the color of what we are seeing, we are both actually wrong. However, if we are humble enough to be aware of the limitations our eyewear place upon us, and apply known properties of light and a little reasoning, we might be able to figure out that the object is, in fact, yellow. That is the truth, the actual state of reality.

Also, I'm not saying that rational discussion is possible with everyone. I might be idealistic but I'm not stupid. I am aware that radical activists on any side of any issue are apt to deliberately twist facts and attempt to muddy the waters of any discussion in order to achieve their desired ends. That makes rational discussion impossible, and attempting it with such people will inevitably lead to much banging of heads against walls. I am not advocating this.

What I am talking about is conversing with the people in the middle of any issue, who don't have an agenda to push. Maybe I'm crazy, or hopelessly naive, but I think that describes many Americans.

Looking Back to Move Forward

In order to make this work, we have to first become aware of our own worldview and how it affects our perceptions. Then we need to honestly attempt to understand the worldview of those we disagree with. Only then will it be possible to have a rational discussion about controversial issues, and come up with ideas that are acceptable for both sides.

Sure, it sounds great on paper, but is it possible in real life? 

I started writing this blog post on the 14th anniversary of 9/11. I was encouraged by memories of the unity our country saw in the wake of that horrible day. That time gave me hope, because I saw my country come together as one in a way that I hadn't thought possible. I look back at those days when it seemed like everyone was displaying American flags as a show of unity, and it didn't matter if you were Democrat or Republican, or who you'd voted for in the election the previous year. We were all Americans, and we were all standing together with our fallen brothers and sisters in the name of freedom, proud of the beacon of hope that our country has always been in the world.

What happened to that unity? That willingness to set aside our disagreements in order to work towards solutions to the problems that we face as a nation?

For years I have pointed my finger at our elected representatives in Washington (on both sides of the aisle) as the instigators of this partisan divide, and have chosen to mostly sit out of the nasty world of politics, burying my head in the sand and busying myself with day to day life.

I am now beginning to realize that partisan politics only divides us--the American people--if we let it. And when we let it divide us, or turn us away from our civic duty to be informed, involved voters, we are abdicating the responsibility given to us by the founding fathers of our nation, and turning over our right to govern ourselves to unelected party machine bosses.

The solution to the partisan divide is not to be found with politicians but with We the People.

We have to start talking to each other about the things that matter to us.

Talking. Not yelling. Not debating. Not arguing. Not protesting.

Discussing. You know, like spouses are supposed to do? "We're not fighting, kids, we're having a discussion."

So let's try this. Let's take an issue, define our opposing worldviews, recognize our respective non-negotiables, identify our mutual goals, and brainstorm ideas to reach those goals without trampling on each other's non-negotiables.

To be continued...