Recently, while at lunch, my coworkers engaged in a discussion about the political news of the day. That day’s topic happened to be Scaramucci’s appointment as White House Communications Director, which, as of writing, only lasted ten days. This being Los Angeles, the conversation veered into an inability to conceive how anyone could be Republican, conservative, or have voted for Trump. Then, someone declared that the left is “less hateful and vitriolic than the right, period.” The table quieted, an unspoken agreement hung over the group as I sat there uncomfortably, suddenly finding myself on the outside. This instance was not the first time I had felt like this, and Los Angeles is not the only place this has happened.
When I go home to Missouri, I encounter the same sort of conversations but from my Republican/conservative family and friends. They are incapable and reluctant to admit the president has done anything wrong. Even when they do disagree with something he has done, a series of “Yeah, but” or “Well, the Democrats/the left did x” quickly follows. To my family, the left is more hateful than the right. So I have stopped talking politics with my family as people hung up on me or dismissed me. They too have alienated me.
Alienation as civil discourse
But these are small examples of what is happening on a much larger scale in the country. Just recently, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake wrote an article in Politico acknowledging Republicans’ (and the right’s) inability to criticize and hold the president accountable. Senator Flake discusses a problem on the right which involves a focus on achieving whatever it wants without regard for the scorched-earth tactics that get it there. It is worth noting the ironic juxtaposition between the Republican tactics of today and the complaints they levied at the Democrats’ for using many of these same maneuvers in passing the Affordable Care Act. Then, there are those on the right who take pleasure in “drinking liberal tears,” displaying sheer delight whenever they can offend or upset a “snowflake.” What does any of this achieve? Nothing. It only serves to prove what some liberals believe – the right is hateful and bigoted.
Meanwhile, on the other side, I happened to pause on an NPR show as I scrolled through radio stations during work, and I caught this (paraphrased) gem:
We can’t forget about the right-wing and its unabashed hate, bigotry, sexism, and racism.
Additionally, a few weeks ago, this piece about the health care debate appeared in the Huffington Post. Besides the title, “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People,” which is a polarizing mouthful in itself, I found this paragraph incredibly telling about the nation’s current discourse:
I don’t know what’s changed ― or indeed, if anything has ― and I don’t have any easy answers. But I do know I’m done trying to convince these hordes of selfish, cruel people to look beyond themselves.
The writer’s focus on “trying to convince these hordes of selfish, cruel people” indicates the two principal issues in our civil discourse; 1) we are certain our beliefs are correct and self-righteous and 2) we do not listen to each other.
When we become so convinced of the truth of our arguments, it does not matter what others say. When evangelical Christians voted for the president based on his dubious commitment to pro-life values while looking the other way on his numerous statements and actions, they lost all claim to self-righteousness. Likewise, when liberals complain about virtually everything the administration does while ignoring previous administrations’ similar discrepancies, they lose their claim to self-righteousness. Indeed, we need understand that, at some point, we have all been hypocrites and have no claim to self-righteousness. After all, how can we possibly have reasonable conversations when we think of the other side as racist/sexist or a bunch of heathen baby killers?
You are not always right
I know that this is difficult, especially when we believe ourselves to be right. After all, how can you hold beliefs without convincing yourself of their certitude? But, however succinct our reasonings for our convictions, we should all be open to the possibility that we could be wrong on a given issue. When we reject the possibility of wrongness, we also reject the suggestion that we have more to learn. At that point, everything begins to revolve around being right and winning, which robs beliefs of principles.
More importantly, though, we have to listen to each other. We cannot accomplish this without first allowing for the possibility of being wrong. Acknowledging this fact also means understanding that everyone may not have the same opinion as you. Nothing is worse than having a group of coworkers or family members state a political opinion as fact, leaving you the one person who sees it differently. We can never forget our own fallibility, which naturally extends to opinions we hold. Once we allow for that possibility, we can really listen to one another. And listening does not mean simply hearing someone’s view; listening is an action which requires engaging with and attempting to understand where the other person bases their argument. Understanding, however, does not mean agreement, since we can never agree on everything.
In practice, this is hard. It involves setting aside personal biases and prejudices, as well as respecting the other person, otherwise known as unconditional love. So, yes, my liberal reader, I am asking you to love that Trump supporter. Yes, my conservative reader, you should love that Social Justice Warrior who protests at every “Resistance” rally. If you are reading this, shaking your head, and thinking, “Why would I ever love that person?” then you may as well give up on the country and leave now. These people you refuse to love will not go away. No election will change their existence. You will always have to live alongside them.
Find meaning elsewhere
I want to be clear: I am not advocating that we avoid discussing politics with our friends and family. Despite the unfortunate instances with my family, friends, and coworkers, I still try to engage in healthy conversation. Explain your thoughts and beliefs. Be clear and bold. For me, most of the time that means getting to know people first and then sharing my views. In most instances, this strategy erases any chance they will rush to judgment on me based on my views. But keep in mind, not all arguments are worth having. Someone may be intent on maligning your character or arguing with you about everything; at that point, agree to disagree. Some conversations just are not worth it.
Politics is not everything. Whether or not someone agrees with your stance on healthcare is not the be-all, end-all. It is no coincidence that, as the belief in higher meaning declines, so does the polarization and the rift in the country. We cannot and should not replace higher meaning with politics, an activity subject to frequent changes. Otherwise, we would experience great angst and upheaval every two years as we attempt to reinvent our meaning. We would become obsessed with justifying that purpose, and would verbally beat our opponents to intellectual death and enforce those views onto others, a pathology already visible on the world wide web. The feeling of alienation tires me, and I am sure it does others as well. We need to have real and fair conversations. We need to approach one another with respect and understanding. Basically, we need to get over ourselves.