At a women’s gathering last week, I was struck by how much conversation centered on our national divisions and the amount of sadness and pain with which the women discussed our great divides. They mourn the ability to talk openly with others, often with people they consider friends, because of political differences. They yearn for ways to build bridges so that they can talk calmly about politics in America.
The women cited conversational scenarios like these that most of us have encountered in one form or another.
You: “That Donald Trump couldn’t tell the truth if Melania’s life depended on it.”
Other person: “Oh, yeah! That Hillary Clinton aided and abetted her husband’s womanizing.” Or this.
You: “Hillary Clinton is the most qualified person ever to run for president of the United States.”
Other person: “Donald Trump is a different sort of president, but he is a great leader no matter what.”
Such deflecting, finger-pointing conversations are exactly what render many of us silent around people of opposing political views. The divide is so deep we simply cannot cross it, so we do nothing. We may unfriend social media contacts to avoid reading posts that repel us. My conversation with women friends last week is one of many such exchanges over the last two years, and I have not detected softening of anyone’s opinions.
We remain stuck in our political gridlock.
Turns out that there is much angst on both sides about the deep gulf between us. An internet search quickly reveals the concerns and offers tips on facilitating better communications, or at least on how not to come to fisticuffs. My favorites come from a TED talk by Celeste Headley, host of a daily news show on Georgia Public Broadcasting.
1. Don’t try to educate anyone. Chances are, you are locked into your beliefs and so are those on the other side of the fence. Attempts at education to your point of view may simply deepen the gulf between you and the other person.
2. Don’t prejudge. We all come to this moment with different life experiences, and listening – really listening – may help us understand how someone came to such beliefs, even though we may never agree.
3. Show respect. Headley puts it this way. “Respect is more important than tolerance. To respect another person is to refrain from calling them names, discounting their ideas or using frequent interruptions to talk over them or perplex them. It also means taking turns; practice seeing people with whom you disagree as people trying to achieve a positive result.”
4. Stick it out. Confrontation, even calm and measured confrontation, is hard and awkward. Headley cautions against cracking jokes or changing the subject. Tough conversations are worth the effort, says Headley, and “are necessary if we are to find common ground” on issues that face both America and the world.
Obviously, all easier said than done, and I have certainly done my share of joking, changing the subject, even running for the door and just avoiding such conversations altogether. But Headley is right. We cannot move forward until we are able to talk to each other. Doing so is not a matter of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump staging a televised love-in. It is Americans, one by one and two by two agreeing that what unites us is stronger and more important than what divides us. It is Americans talking to each other, no matter how difficult and awkward that may be.
Damage has been done, but last week’s special election in Alabama was a ray of light in a bleak and charged atmosphere. No matter one’s political leanings, that election was proof that Americans do not always believe partisan ends justify the means above all else.
Americans have reason to be encouraged as we head into 2018.