Paying attention to how you say what you say doesn’t mean you have nothing to say. -Michael Eric Dyson
Almost every aspect of our lives has become polarized. Large segments of our country have cocooned themselves inside ideological bubbles that never challenge their worldview. Civil conversations about important issues are vanishing. In the old days, politics and religion were the only subjects one had to avoid to be considered polite; now, friendships are lost over hashtags trending on social media. Society writ large is losing the ability to talk rationally about anything. We are becoming robots. Our inability to see shades of gray has reduced us to binary beings. The world is more than 1’s and 2’s We have to do better.
Biting your tongue to keep the peace is a trap of comfort. The illusion of civility is just that. Ask yourself who benefits from your silence? Who is hurt by it? We have to start talking about the issues that divide us. James Baldwin was right when he said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” If we can’t talk about important issues with people we have established relationships with then there’s no way we can bridge the divides between those on the periphery of our lives. There are a few things we can do to help facilitate these tough conversations.
1. Wrestle with (and accept) the fact that there will always be people you don’t understand; inversely, there will always be people who don’t understand you. We don’t have to agree 100% of the time to respect each other. No one will listen to you if they feel disrespected.
2. Understand that you are vulnerable to all of the cognitive and linguistic pit falls that make clear speaking and plain understanding almost impossible. The Rorschach test is a great example of this. Every time you see a butterfly someone else could be seeing a bat. We have to challenge ourselves to see issues from another point of view. This can be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary.
3. Leave as much room for the humanity of others as you expect. There are conversations that elicit visceral responses. Terms like triggered and gas lighting are thrown around so often that we diminish their meaning. People are heavily invested in their beliefs. We can’t expect someone to just surrender a tightly held belief without a fight.
4. Avoid insulting people who misunderstand you or your point of view. We can’t usher in civility with derogatory language. bell hooks relies on her Buddhist faith when it comes to dealing with confrontation. She reminds us not to get in the ring. We don’t have to create the conditions for a fight or escalate them.
5. Be real. Authenticity isn’t always appreciated, but it’s become so rare people notice it. Your consistency is a direct reflection of who you are. Avoiding tough subject matter becomes a way of life. People might not understand or respect your positions, but at least they will know where you stand. Having an identity is better than having one projected on you.
6. Be forgiving. Life is hard enough without adding revenge to your daily to-do list. We can leave a discussion in which no consensus was formed without creating an enemy. There are issues that affect us that can’t be resolved over lunch. The idea is to create the conditions for future dialog.
All of us are emotionally invested in our beliefs. There will be times when our opinions will be diametrically opposed by people who are close to us. When this happens, we have to talk about it. We have to respectfully counter implicit societal agreements that force us to be quiet about important issues. This won’t be easy, but it’s something we have to do.