To me, political polarization is the biggest challenge facing us today. Until we start bridging the divide between "left" and "right" we can't work together solving problems effectively. We’ll be stuck defending "our side" — resisting one another, moving closer to all-out civil war.
How do we bridge this polarity?
I begin with my own convictions: the ways MY mind is certain about things and closed to other opinions. I'm aware that such certainty is problematic in this “post-truth” era of fake news. I count myself to be among the uninformed and misinformed.
My ethical decisions are often based on my understanding of the “facts.” I then take moral stands based on ignorance, misunderstandings, misinterpretations or just plain incorrect data. And sometimes I find that along with my moral stands comes my contempt.
It’s easy to have an opinion; we often confuse opinions with facts. But they're NOT facts and, although everyone is entitled to them, not all opinions are created equal. Some are more reliable than others.
I also have become aware of my double standards, how I cherry-pick facts and succumb to my blind spots. Further, I’ve been seeing the ways in which I strive towards certainty and why.
“Knowing” creates an illusion of security. It makes me feel safe in an uncertain world. To know what’s right gives me a false sense of being in control. I see how I use certainty as a defense mechanism.
Feeling sure about things makes me feel less helpless (some say that helplessness is the No. 1 worst emotion to feel!). Sometimes I grab onto an idea to make myself feel more powerful.
Next I identify and explore my own reactions: what triggers me, how I know that I am triggered, how I behave when I’m triggered, and how that gets in the way of clear-headed thinking.
When I perceive something as a threat — whether real or imagined — my survival instincts come on board. The older, more primitive part of my brain kicks in. At the same time, communication with the newer, more rational part of my brain shuts down. I can't think. My capacity to reason gets hijacked. I may feel fear, anxiety, adrenalin, or anger.
Then my defense mechanisms rally. These can be: fighting, withdrawing, passive-aggression, or crying. I notice I'm pushing back. This is a time to take a step back and self-regulate my nervous system to have a constructive conversation.
This happens not only when faced with opinions from the “opposing side” but also within "my side” — those with whom I usually agree. I find the vitriol just as strong from people with my own basic set of values.
So the problem is between left and left as well.
Even though we share the same values, if they're not seen or expressed exactly the same way, or if I have a different take on issues, there's friction and discounting and digging in to points of view (I include myself in this dynamic).
And then I realize I need to entertain doubt and curiosity. Although doubt can be taken as weakness, it's really an ally to cultivating open-mindedness. Doubt is the act of challenging our beliefs. It bumps up against our desire to be certain. The value of doubt leaves us room to question, to be curious, to inquire.
“Agreeing to disagree” is not enough at this juncture. By looking at our own closed-mindedness, and what keeps it in place, we can have true conversations with non-like-minded people. By not putting the “issues” in the forefront, we can bypass defensiveness to see other points of view. Softening our defenses should be something that happens BEFORE the conversations.
Even if my side “wins,” it's no solution: we'd still be divided; we'd still be consumed with contempt and hatred for the other side. We need open-minds to craft new approaches that value both sides if we're going to move forward.
Join Marla Estes and Rob Schlapfer for their free talk “How to Change Minds (Including Your Own)" from 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday July 1, at the Medford Library; or at 3 p.m. Saturday, July 29, at the Ashland Public Library. No pre-registration required. Listen to an interview with them at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, June 28, on Jefferson Public Radio. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.