In escalated conflicts, many of us tend to avoid listening to or talking with people on the other side. We tend to assume that:
- We know what they believe and what they are going to say and do and
- We are not interested.
We should be interested--and we should find out. It could affect us deeply.
WHY: In escalated conflicts, many of us tend to avoid listening to or talking with people on the other side. We tend to assume (1) we know what they believe and what they are going to say and do and (2) we're not interested. So even if we hear them or read about them, we interpret what we read or hear to correspond to our original image of them, thus just reinforcing our already negative views.
If we do happen to find ourselves talking with people on the other side, we either avoid contentious topics, or we try to convince them that we are right and they are wrong. This seldom works, as the other side is likely to do exactly the same thing. That approach is taking America to the brink of disaster, as the country is becoming increasingly polarized to the point that one side hardly knows or understands the other at all. While it has become socially unacceptable (in most social circles anyway) to speak poorly of people of other races, cultures, genders, and sexual orientations, it is still completely acceptable to speak ill of the other political party, and it is very common for people to avoid serious relationships (or marriage) with people who are aligned with a different political party than they are. (See articles below.)
When countries lose their unified identity--when being "American" means something entirely different to one group than to another--and the other side is seen as being less than human and patently "evil," the chances of holding the country together and avoiding debilitating political stalemate, destructive confrontations, political violence, or even war is gravely threatened. We have seen this break down in many other places: Syria and Yemen now, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere in the past. There is a reason everyone knows the history of those places.
Hopefully, war of that extent, though possible, is still unlikely. But large-scale civil unrest, such as that experienced in the 1960s which saw two high-profile assassinations in one year (Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy), prolonged and violent riots in many cities, and bombings all over (we had many here in little Boulder, Colorado) is quite easily imaginable.
So it is high time that Americans start addressing these threats.
HOW: The way to do that is very simple. Listen. Read. Learn. Don't assume you know what the other side thinks or does. Ask them. And do so in a respectful, really curious way, not in a "how can you be so stupid" way. Ask them WHY they prefer the politicians they do. Why they advocate the policies they do.
You are likely to find out that they aren't sexist or racist or selfish or dumb or "entitled"-- as you thought -- but that they have interests and needs that you haven't identified. You might also find out that your side has done some things that really make them really angry. Or they might be afraid of you and your side--for reasons you know are not legitimate--but they don't because they have the same stereotypical views of you that you have of them. You can't change those views by avoiding them, calling them names in public communications, working against them at every chance you get. The only way you can change those views is by learning what they are and addressing them.
This is best done by talking to real, but "ordinary" grassroots people--your relatives or neighbors, perhaps, who are people who should, because of family or neighborhood relationships, care about you and yours, but maybe don't because you are "on the other side." But your family or neighbor relationships might give you the benefit of the doubt.
Don't just read (or watch on TV or social media) statements by the other sides' leaders. Leaders often are only speaking for themselves, not for their constituencies. Or they are making extremely alarming statements in an effort to mobilize their base, without considering the dangers of doing that. Others completely realize the dangers--but seek to use them to their own advantage. "Divide-and-conquer" is an age-old strategy--and it is one that some modern politicians -- in the U.S. and elsewhere-- are utilizing to great advantage to gain power for themselves.
Further, when reading and watching media, be aware of bias, and seek out those that have a reputation for balanced reporting. The chart put together (and updated often) by Ad Fontes Media is a useful source of media bias information.
If all this seems unnecessary, because we "know what they think, and we don't like it" -if we just try to build up our base so we can totally defeat "them," we must remember that "they" are not going away. "They" are doing the same thing too. We will all will just be driving farther down the road that leads to Syria or Yemen.
For more information on this topic, see,
- Things You Can Do To Help Post on Listen Actively and Empathically
- Beyond Intractability (BI) Essay on Empathic Listening
- Read -- or listen to -- many expert scholars and conflict practitioners discuss the utility of active listening.
- Frontiers Seminar 7 on Authoritarian Populism (to get a sense of why continued polarization is dangerous).
- Elizabeth Shockman, People don't date across political party lines anymore. Why is this?
- Eitan Hersh. How many Republicans Marry Democrats?
Have you done this?
We'd love to hear about it!