Recently, I have heard people from opposing political viewpoints express their hopes that this nation can be unified. If this means that everyone will believe the same thing about reproductive rights and religion, I don’t believe we will see unity at that level. However, we can heal division without being unified in all of our beliefs. There are certain things people will never agree upon and that is okay. Healthy discourse and debate are part of democracy. We can still cultivate understanding, acknowledge both the heroes and horrors of our history, and build a better society together.
Healthy discourse requires good leadership from our “thought leaders,” including reporters, politicians, and educators at every level. It also requires a level of respect and measured appetite from consumers of media. When people are drawn to the extreme, whether it is extreme behavior that includes name-calling, threats of violence, and more, that is a problem of the people, a problem of appetite.
Advertising and news stories are based upon algorithms that track our consumption. When we allow fear and lust for power to dominate our media consumption, we are contributing directly to the news stories presented and the bias that is cultivated. If we approach media seeking not to be comforted but to understand, our measured appetites will produce a more balanced news source and will not reward those who cater to these impulses. Balanced news sources can contribute to healthy discourse.
Most importantly, healthy discourse requires listening and willingness to understand someone who holds a different perspective than yourself. As a therapist who works with couples and families, I need to do this in every session. The better I am at holding multiple perspectives, the better therapy I provide. It is a skill that requires an ability to self-regulate and empathize with the feelings, beliefs, and concerns of all parties. However, I have found it is easier to do this in my work than it is when interacting with my own dear family members. There are times when speaking with my relatives that I have felt very anxious and deeply saddened at disagreement. I find myself wishing we all believed and thought similarly; to be honest, I wish they all believed the same things as me. We are physiologically wired to care more about and react more passionately with those with whom we have shared our safe space growing up, our homes, and our hearts. As a professional, I understand the why and the how, but self-regulation and attuned understanding require practice in my personal life as well. We are all on this journey of growth together.
Disrupt the System
In 2016, we learned people craved disruption as they felt their concerns were not being heard by the establishment. These people voted for Trump, who they believed would disrupt the status quo, the long-time political establishment. They view the system as corrupt and unjust, a system at work to reduce opportunity for domestic job growth and to dismantle religious freedom of expression. This is the system disruption craved by “the right.”
Ironically, many on the opposing side want something similar. “The left” also advocates for a disruption of the system. (In fact, I believe “disrupt the system” may have been a more unifying rally-cry for BLM than “defund the police” for reasons I describe here). The left also views the system as corrupt and unjust; this side would like to see disruption of a system that was developed in times and contexts that caused it to be inherently racist. This side views our criminal justice and economic system as one that currently favors those with lighter color of skin over darker. The left wants to disrupt the system with a reallocation of resources and with legislative reform.
It seems both sides long for justice, opportunity, fairness, and freedom. Comprehending what these terms mean to either side and why they would support a person or movement requires understanding their worldview. Only then can we engage in healthy discourse and collaborate together to build just systems.
Bafflement and incredulity best describe the feelings many on the left express surrounding the support of Trump. I had a difficult time understanding the perspective myself, despite being brought up among many who now align themselves with this perspective. Now, being immersed in a more conservative environment the past several months, I believe I am able to understand it better. Although I have not changed my own viewpoints or beliefs, I can internally access the general framework, empathize with concerns, and feel the fears found in this general perspective.
Worldviews are not something easily understood through intellectual study. In college, I was tasked with managing a project surrounding worldview analysis. I studied and represented to my best ability alternative worldviews to the predominant worldview I was enmeshed in. I was given a specific framework from which to analyze these opposing worldviews. I found it impossible to characterize these worldviews from the framework I was provided. Although I hadn’t yet spent time living in other countries, I was intuitive enough to understand that I was not accurately representing these other worldviews at all, given the opposing worldviews have different starting points. Foundationally the project was flawed.
Soak and Understand
In order to understand a different worldview one must soak in it. Live it and breathe it. We must open our minds to understanding via experiencing life’s daily patterns and routines from a perspective other than our own. I’ve found through my many moves in the U.S. and other countries that it takes about 6 months to feel at home somewhere, to adjust to the rhythms, perspectives, and ways of being of the people around you. As many of us may be surrounded by people who look like us or agree with us, we need to be intentional about understanding other worldviews. We can begin this process by cultivating a posture of openness and a listening ear. This often requires a feeling of being heard ourselves. Therapy helps with this. Therapists are there when we need someone to listen to our story, help us learn how to determine and meet our needs, and help address our concerns. When we feel listened to and understood, we can begin to listen to others.
Politicians, media, and influencers can easily create division by cultivating fear and distrust. We the people can heal division by rejecting media that cultivates fear and venturing from our echo chambers in order to listen to one another. Many of us cannot live in and experience the life of a person who, due to industry changes, no longer has a clear direction for their livelihood…or a way to feed their children. Many of us cannot live and experience the life of a person who is afraid of being stopped by police every time they leave home…and afraid of the knock at the door due to a misidentification. Yet, we can listen to their stories. We can soak in their worldview. If not in person, especially during these times, we can listen to radio stories, watch documentaries, and read their biographies. We can listen via phone and video conversations with friends and relatives who disagree with us. We can repair relationships by agreeing to show kindness and respect without needing to agree.
COVID has taken away a lot of the community activities that bring us together, leaving us with a lot that divides us—politics, an economic crisis, grief and fear. Love casts out fear, Love endures, and Love heals. As we love one another, listening with ears to hear and hearts to understand, we begin to heal division.