It’s hot. The economy is shaky. Heat and uncertainty seem to breed crankiness. Each news headline brings on debate. Pro-this, pro-that, anti-this, anti-that. Passion and discussion and debate occasionally lead to rancor and nastiness. All of a sudden, folks that one disagrees with are evil and wrong. What’s up, United States?
There are lots of positives, though. I admire the passion and the fact that people are so dedicated to their issues and causes. They put up yard signs, sign petitions, send things in e-mail, post messages to their social media outlets, attend meetings, and reach out to others. And then there are the opposite actions when the opposing side is brought to attention. Folks are urged to support or boycott a company or organization for this reason or that. All of this action and discourse is welcome. People are actively shaping our democracy, our republic.
I grew up loving the idea of debate and discussion. I have friends nearby and close friends from afar whom I keep in touch with in person and by e-mail, phone, and social media. A lot of those friends have opinions and political beliefs that span the spectrum, but I respect them even when I disagree with their messages and opinions. Far too often, we don’t seem to get to have those discussions about what we think and why. For fear of setting off a rage of anger, we avoid the controversial topics or only converse about our deepest opinions with those who agree. For my own sake, I try to read a variety of articles and get my news from lots of different sources, so that I can know and understand what people are hearing and learning. I miss, though, the ability to discuss politics and issues without it becoming mean-spirited. It helps me to hear opposing viewpoints. I need to be exposed to them. It helps me to better understand another perspective and it helps me to articulate my own stance. I can begin to see where there are misunderstandings and misperceptions and misinformation. It also shows me where the holes are in my own arguments. I enjoy finding where sides converge, or to learn that the means and ends are not necessarily that far apart.
In thinking of conversations on controversial topics, I am having a fit of nostalgia for my senior year in high school, particularly for the last semester and the following summer. Several of us were moving closer together, knowing that in a few months we would be moving farther away. A small group of us would discuss our beliefs and debate current events. Today, many of those current issues are still very much the questions of the day. We examined religion and politics and money and how we thought things should get done. We talked about abortion and the death penalty and the environment. We weren’t always well-informed, but the vanity of being 17 and 18 is that we already knew everything. We helped each other, though, and because of our common childhoods, we pushed each other into adulthood. We supported each other and listened and questioned. We didn’t hate because we disagreed. It was an important first lesson that our politics and beliefs shaped us, but civility and friendship formed us as much, if not more. We lived the idea that respect for the person comes from engagement, even when you disagree. Agreeing to disagree can be one of the best feelings in the world, particularly after a hearty and heated exchange.
I would love to get my old tribe back together in the same room, and recall our side conversations in the back of the classroom and lingering next to lockers. If anything, we have all grown up and moved into our own lives. I know we still disagree on a lot of these issues, but I would like to think that we could still have those same passionate, yet respectful conversations. One of us is gone now, but I do know that the years and the memories and the miles melt into oblivion.
If you are craving some passionate and respectful discussion, here are some ways to go about it. Whether they are old friends or new ones, find someone with whom you know you have a political or philosophical difference. If they’re nearby, invite them over, or if they’re far away, grab the phone. Let them know you want to catch up and that you want to discuss a controversial issue. Get a cold drink and make sure your friend has one as well–lemonade, iced tea, wine, beer, water–whatever will help to float the talk. Listen as they describe the issue as they see it and as they understand it. Ask what shaped their view. What would they do to solve the problem or issue? Ask your friend to give you the chance to do the same. It’s not a Presidential debate, so you don’t have to have all the facts or answers. Really listen. Contrast with each other how different your views are. Is the end result the same, but are the means very different?
Just when you feel your blood pressure rise, take a deep breath. Don’t interrupt. Don’t let your volume levels rise. Take a sip of your drink. Listen some more. Now take a pause. Get up and stretch. Take another sip of your drink. Hug or shake hands or give a verbal hug on the phone. I bet the opinions haven’t changed. You probably still disagree. However, you may have a new perspective about why someone thinks the way they do. You may have made your argument stronger. You have new things to learn. Maybe it made you realize you are that much firmer with your position. You have a friend, you have a drink. It’s a beautiful summer day. It’s really not so bad.