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Rebuilding Dialogue and Trust in America

by JACK HAMILTON

Co-Author of Conflict  The Unexpected Gift

Americans have come a long way in accepting differences in ethnic backgrounds, skin colors, religious beliefs, gender identities, and sexual orientations. However, we are becoming less and less tolerant of political differences, as well as more and more willing to dismiss as intellectually inferior those who disagree with us. We are, in fact, losing our sense of a common national identity. To stem this tide, we need to make an effort to be content with disagreement, and to embrace compromise—an attitude that, until relatively recently, was the backbone of our American culture.

Our political opinions are outgrowths of our deeply rooted values and worldviews. For many of us, they define who we are and how we believe others think of us. Being willing to admit to someone, who is dedicated to an ideology contrary to our own, that we’re uncertain or even wrong can be very daunting. As a result, we tend to associate with people who agree with us. We read information that confirms our beliefs. We join political parties and end up arguing a party line.

Americans are building firewalls that separate themselves from those who may have differing political opinions or worldviews, and preclude opportunities to communicate with people who hold positions outside of their comfort zones. Political correctness requires that we embrace conformity over truth. All too often, we desire to know more about whatever position confirms our side of an argument and weakens the other side. This is what can be called fake knowledge.

Seeking true knowledge is much harder to come by. It requires a level of curiosity that exposes us to conflicting evidence. It can be unsettling and disorienting; it takes detective work, and it is time consuming. American journalist and author Krista Tippett, in Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, writes about what it takes to search for true knowledge:

I can disagree with your opinion, it turns out, but I can’t disagree with your experience. And once I have a sense of your experience, you and I are in relationship, acknowledging the complexity in each other’s position, and listening less guardedly…It involves a kind of vulnerability—a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. The listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other.

Tippett’s words are reminiscent of the advice of a famous figure in American Literature, Atticus Finch: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” 

Each one of us needs to put into action Finch’s words of wisdom, if we are to reverse the growing political polarization in our society. He calls us to acknowledge that we can learn a lot from someone we disagree with, and to embrace the fact that it is well within our reach to accept ideological diversity and to respect one another.  

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