Help for a Polarized Nation

This was my column in the Kenosha News in February, but is still very relevant.

We have a very energetic president who currently lives alone, doesn’t require much sleep, works weekends, and tweets before most people are awake. So, there is no telling what may have happened in the intervening week between the time I submit this column and the time you read it.

Already, after a whirlwind week one, the Trump presidency has generated as much controversy as his unorthodox candidacy. Many Americans are excited that this celebrity businessman can get things done and deliver quickly on campaign promises, while many other Americans feel the nightmare is just beginning. About the same number of citizens, think they have finally been heard as those who think the most unqualified, morally bankrupt individual who has ever held the office is wrecking their country and trashing its foundational values.

Sadly, more than ever before these very strong feelings have been transferred from the president to both his followers and his detractors. There is a new level of zealous anger, and outright hate based on political views that is expressed very openly and very personally.

How in the world can this nation find a way forward when one half disdains, belittles, and shuts out the other half, and respectful discourse is no longer fashionable?

Here are a few principles that we would all do well to embrace, no matter who we voted for.

People are more important than politics. We must find a way to get along with our neighbors, friends, and family members who don’t share our opinions. It’s time to stop overreacting to people who have the nerve to disagree with us on something. It is amazing how hateful and wrong we can become in condemning what we think is wrong in others. Your disagreeing neighbor has the same right to his opinion as you do yours. We can show him respect and look for the opportunity to learn and understand, and not just convince and correct. We can talk openly, understand where we agree and where we disagree, and determine to be good friends and neighbors anyway. Once we get to know a person and hear his story, its hard to think of him as the enemy. This is simply part of being a decent and reasonable adult in America.

Open-mindedness is more helpful than self righteousness. Many of us have felt the full thrust of self righteous behavior that is simply hateful and unreasonable. One person, one party, one philosophy is highly unlikely to have the best ideas on every single issue every single time. Open mindedness does not mean abandoning your convictions. It is not being wishy-washy. It means we examine our own positions and we carefully consider the opinions of others. It means we think for ourselves and refuse to blindly follow the spin of politicians and media pundits.

Respectful discourse is more productive than hit-and-run accusations. Anybody can find the most extreme example from an opposing perspective and ridicule it. That’s easy. What’s hard is sitting down and talking frankly to someone who thoughtfully approaches an issue from another perspective. What’s hard is loving and respecting that individual as a person. What’s hard is listening and learning. What’s hard is finding common ground. What’s hard is finding a way to move forward together. What’s hard is making things better.

That is the hard work that has been waiting to be done while we have been indulging our desire to expose those who differ with us while we claim the moral high ground for ourselves. Honestly, there is great value in having our opinions challenged. Then they can be evaluated until we get to the very core of what we truly believe as an individual, rather than just repeating want someone else told us.

Our country has weathered devastating wars, including civil war, great swings in political power, and being on the wrong side of history on a number of issues. We have dealt with too many bad presidents, congressmen, senators, judges, and administrators, and the nation has survived. All is not won or lost with a transfer of power.

Yet, I fear that if we abandon our duty to be thoughtfully involved in the system or loose our desire to have respectful discourse, we will be in very deep trouble.


Image Credit: Johnny Silvercloud. Creative Commons.

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