Much has been said lately about the increasing level of polarization in international, national, and local issues. True dialogue between groups representing different opinions is becoming rare. Sweeping generalizations, instant stereotyping, unchecked assumptions, and general closed-mindedness are commonplace. Issues are presented as black or white, right or wrong; either you’re with me or against me. There is no middle ground. High conflict is the norm, and that’s uncomfortable. Criticisms are becoming increasingly personal.
When we disagree with someone, it’s easy to equate our feelings about their opinion with the person expressing them – if we don’t like what they say, we don’t like them. Or, even worse, we think they’re a bad person. The tendency to confuse people’s worth with what they are saying is a large part of the current radical divisiveness on so many issues.
It’s a vicious cycle: we don’t like someone’s opinion, so we decide we don’t like them. If we don’t like them, it’s much easier to disrespect them. If we disrespect them, we’ll discount their opinions even more and like them even less. And so it goes, until we’ve decided that those with differing opinions are stupid, amoral, bad, etc. At its worst, this cycle can lead to dehumanizing others and pave the way to condoning violence against them.
So, how do we reduce this conflict and get along better? While most of us have limited influence at the state and national level, we can definitely improve the quality of discourse in our workplaces and communities. It requires distinguishing the messenger from the message, and always respecting the messenger. We have to recognize that if we have a problem with a perspective, it doesn’t immediately follow that there must be a problem with the person holding that view. Or, said another way, we need to think “I do not like that opinion”, rather than “I cannot like that person because they hold that opinion”.
People are much more than their opinions. They all have concerns, joys, hobbies, loves, passions, aspirations, and all the rest. They may not have come to their opinions in the same way we have. But there is some validity to each perspective, validity that, if considered, can lead to more robust solutions.
Likewise, when we hitch our sense of self to the opinions we hold, we can no longer listen. If we are our opinions, any disagreement with our opinions becomes a threat to our very being. And when we feel threatened, it is physically impossible to listen fully and make considered choices.
We can still disagree without vilifying those who think differently. We can make the choice to respect each other as fellow human beings.
So when talking about hot-button issues like the county water bank, the middle school, or the decoration of graduation caps, debate the problem with respect for the individuals involved. Argue passionately for solutions – emotion is fine. Just remember the respect you’ve decided to have for this person. Respect doesn’t necessarily mean like, but it’s an important ingredient in creating a stronger community.
We’re all in this together.