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How can we heal tensions in society? The real work is hard.

While tension and division is as old as society itself, polarization in America has become starkly visible in a new way this year. Like many others, I’m concerned about the future. Looking at the streets filled with post-election protestors, I feel surprised and confused, bewildered that the President’s supporters don’t understand that the election results will be good for the country and the world. I feel threatened by their views. But when I notice my feelings, I compare them with what the pro-Trump protestors might be experiencing. I see that their views and reactions may be grounded in opposite but very similar feelings of fear, threat, surprise and revulsion.

What do we do about these tensions? Is the gap already too wide to bridge?

Beliefs

The work starts understanding our own beliefs as clearly as possible. I ask myself, what do I really believe about the issues I encounter, and what principles do those beliefs come from? Do I really believe what I say, or have I simply adopted someone else’s slogans? Copying and repeating is easy. Finding and standing up for our true beliefs is hard, especially when we face pressure to fit in.

Expression is particular to each person, the product of that person’s social groups, circumstances and psychology. In interviews with right- and left-wing protestors, I hear mirror images of hurt and dissatisfaction. Though the problems may be similar, people express them in different ways. 

Empathy

I recognize something of myself in the Trump supporters filling the streets. Though I disagree strongly with what they seem to stand for, I see that they are frustrated and disappointed, feeling threatened in the present and fear about the future. 

When speaking to people whose political views align with mine, I feel difficulty admitting that I empathize with these people. I’m afraid that I’ll be viewed as sympathetic with their views. And feeling this difficulty, I become aware of the dehumanization that is elevating tensions on both sides.

We each have the opportunity to recognize that people on the other side are human. They have struggles. We can listen to them before judging them. We can look beyond what seems comical, crazy or invective in their speech and try to understand the hurt or fear underneath. 

We can ask why they believe what they do before reacting or arguing. We can listen for the root causes and the experiences that have shaped their expression. 

Common truths

I see that perceived lack of control and fear for the future are common on both sides. While it’s easier to shout slogans than to look for the inner source of our discontent, I wonder if we could start better conversations by using uncertainty and fear as a common starting point. 

Even if we can’t agree on anything else, perhaps we can recognize the validity of the emotions people who aren’t like us feel. It’s much easier to caricature their expressions than to admit there are real problems behind them. However, it can be scary to recognize the real problems because then they’re harder to ignore. It means we share the responsibility for addressing them.

Conversation

To discover our beliefs, we need space and permission to speak and express them. This takes trust and time. We can learn what is actually true for us by explaining our views in a logical way, possibly in the context of a debate with someone who disagrees. 

This takes patience and some mental skill. It’s much easier to clothe yourself in an argument from someone you admire and repeat it without taking time to understand it. Being patient and seeking encounters where you can help people untangle these knots that are binding our society. 

Judgment, prejudice and fear make conversation impossible. When we fear the other, we can’t listen. When we judge, we react strangely to opposing opinions. To have open minded encounters, we can enter conversations with our own strong convictions, as clearly ordered in our minds as possible, and a mind free of judgement. 

Empowerment

Once we have a shared understanding of a problem, we might be able to lay out possible solutions. Once we have options, we can engage in substantial discussion in which we compare them. In such a discussion, we might be able to pinpoint our real disagreements, understand why we disagree, and find out where there’s room for compromise. 

We can look for ways to support one another in moving beyond our fears. We can help one another learn to live with inevitable uncertainty by providing support in a way that works for us. We can help one another find agency by understanding the way the world works and seeing how we can move the levers that control change. Every one of us has power, whether we choose to use it intentionally or not. That fact makes us responsible for the hard work of creating connection that will lead to a better world.