There seem to be only two sides lately. I say “seems” because I don’t really find that to be a true state of affairs, but the power of rhetoric has convinced many of this perspective.
Like many others in America, I feel a good deal of angst, of frustration, and mostly depression. Like everyone else in America, I have strong feelings about what is going on.
Many of my colleagues and friends, or at least those with whom I talk on a daily basis, feel the same as I do. I regularly read tweets and hear opinions from people with the same perspective as mine. There’s no friction when we talk, but rather a shared angst. We’re in our own space, free of disagreement.
A long time ago, I had a dear friend. I always found us to have a great deal in common. We performed together, walked through life together. We had very candid discussions about very uncomfortable things, the stuff of a real life and of human beings trying their best to work through it. Late one night after a tragic event had occurred, even though we hadn’t seen each other for some time, this friend called me and we met for coffee to try to make sense of it, to try to cope.
It’s not like we always agreed, my friend and I. We had different opinions on things, we agreed to disagree at times. The things that we had in common, though, were a much stronger binding agent than any differences which we had discovered.
I should pause here and recognize that any friendship suffers a bit when one person moves any distance away. Karen and I have moved a lot in the past few years, and keeping up with friends has proven a challenge at times. Still, when I re-connected with this friend, we did what old friends do: we caught up, we mused about the things that had changed with each other, we laughed about the things that were the same.
This friend and I fell on opposite sides of the great political rift that has split our country. Conversations became heated at times on social media, but never un-civil. At the end of the day, we were still friends. Until the social media connection…which was really the only consistent means of communication that we used…was broken.
Because I still follow this old friend, I read what is written at times, and I feel a flush of frustration and anger. I want to respond succinctly, or even vehemently, to what I perceive as a course of logic in which no educated person could seriously believe. The old friendship, though, holds true, and so I ultimately just avoid the situation, making no response at all.
Neither is the correct solution.
You see, I don’t for a moment believe that our problem is the political climate that edges us closer to civil war again. I don’t think that the underlying current of hatred and bigotry is new, or somehow more powerful than before. As frightened as I am to raise my daughters in this atmosphere, the factors which normally receive the blame aren’t the core of the problem.
The issue is that we, all of us, for a long time now, have surrounded ourselves with people who are in the same space as we are. We speak with people who think as we do, who share our opinions. We feed off of that, we become encouraged. And then we become cast in stone, our opinions set. We won’t entertain other ideas, other thoughts.
We won’t have discussions with those who think differently, regardless of how close a friend the other person may be. Differences of opinion cannot be tolerated, will not be entertained. Opinions other than our own are simply wrong.
My freshman year of college, I had an introductory communications theory class with the chair of the department. This was slightly intimidating. She introduced us to a quote during that semester that has remained with me ever since. I have no idea to whom this quote could be attributed…perhaps it was to her…but I remember what she said verbatim:
“Civilizations advance or decline based on their ability to talk about their problems.”
We haven’t been able to talk about our problems as a society, as a culture, for years. Civil discourse eludes us, and public debate becomes a challenge to yell louder than the other person. All sides of the divide resort to violence. The basest of emotions drive our decisions, drive our actions, drive our beliefs.
We do exactly what I do with my friend on Twitter. We avoid.
Our avoidance has brought us to a dangerous position. We cannot talk. And so we are declining. Perhaps fatally.
You see, I’m not certain that our country can recover from this stagnation in discussion. I think that it’s likely too late, and that only cultural disintegration and chaos will follow. Hopefully, I’m mistaken. What I know for a fact is that, if there is any hope that our future will not become the bleakest of scenarios, then we have to stop avoiding.
We have to begin talking.
And before we do any of that, we have to listen.