This article seeks to uncover the democratic mindset through the practice of speaking with dissenters; hopefully teaching readers how to communicate with the ominous ‘other side,’ as well as how to understand their perspective and accept/embrace them as your national cohort.
Our nation currently faces a crisis unparalleled since the mid-1800s. It is not due to economic instability, disease, nor terrorism, but a much more domestic threat; a familiar force which is currently succeeding in unsewing our democracy from inside out. The danger which I speak of is polarization and, in the past decades, it has successfully eroded our nation’s democratic norms and replaced any last mutual respect with toxic partisan divides. As a result, we are witnessing nearly-unprecedented (and increasing) levels of bureaucratic dysfunction as well as crippling division, not only among Congress but throughout American society as a whole. Democracy demands dissent; thus we should see much our cohort as incorrect, misguided, and perhaps even aggravating. However, our democracy approaches endangerment when we begin to view dissenting Americans as, not only false, but illegitimate, less worthy of a vote, or essential to silence. The last decade has proved American society’s capabilities to reach this point.
In times such as these, it is pivotal that we, the electorate, acknowledge our power of mending social divides. The promises of democracy are ultimately fulfilled, not through institutions or economics, but rather our society’s collective adherence to democracy’s most fundamental principles; communication, mutual respect, and cooperation. Thus, in these tumultuous times, our nation’s most urgent threat is one which lives inside of us and, whether we choose to act on it or not, we all have a role to play in preserving our nation’s democratic spirit. This article hopes to uncover more of this democratic mindset through the practice of speaking with dissenters; hopefully teaching readers how to communicate with the ominous “other side,” as well as how to understand their perspective and accept/embrace them as your national cohort.
However, to participate in a contested yet constructive conversation, one must first understand the source of opposing perspectives. Although each of us is the product of a totally unique set of experiences and genetics, most everyone’s’ opinions and fundamental values are shaped by fairly similar factors just in different forms. For example, culture is highly influential in almost everyone’s intellectual development, yet not everyone shares the same set of cultural customs and beliefs; it is mostly dependent on whichever you happen to be born into. Although we should surely be proud of our different backgrounds, we must acknowledge the subjectivity which comes along with cultural norms, especially when entering a discussion with someone who doesn’t share our ideological background.
Although your current opinion of an issue may seem like the objective, undeniable truth, you would likely view it very differently should you be born into a different household, culture, class, race, etc. Thus, when trying to see society objectively, we must use our sociological imagination to filter our culturally-driven personal beliefs from objective concepts. Likewise, we must use this information to respect those with opposing cultural beliefs as they are likely shaped by similar factors with a different mask. However, perhaps most important of all is to consider that nobody’s worldview has ever captured the ‘whole picture’ and there will always be a reality beyond anyone’s understanding. However, by challenging our existing views and exposing ourselves to ideas which may seem foreign or unfamiliar to us, we can widen our perspective. Exposure to beliefs which contradict your own may not change your opinion, but that certainly doesn’t mean it hasn’t furthered your understanding or perspective.
It is crucial when entering any conversation to evaluate precisely what you seek to gain from the interaction. This remains the case more than ever when discussing opposing political positions. Often times, the goal of conversing is not necessarily to change the other person’s opinion, but more to gain their perspective and share your own. Keeping in mind that their views were likely shaped by factors similar to your own and understanding that their opinions will likely remain unchanged after the conversation, you should try looking at friendly dissenters as sociological specimens whose views, when explored and put in juxtaposition to yours, could reveal the sources of polarization and teach you more about the ever so divided political landscape. Thus, when you hear a belief which contradicts your own, it shouldn’t always be seen as a personal attack, but perhaps an invitation to explore their perspective. Try to understand, not only their views, but their background, their home, and their culture. This contextualizes their beliefs and allows you to build sympathy, despite ideological differences. This mature, analytic approach to social conversation may or may not be reciprocated by the other person but, either way, it allows for you to personally use said interaction as a learning experience, opposed to another pointless bickering session.
Once your conversation becomes contested, it is pivotal that you listen more than talk and, when you listen, do so openly and honestly. You will likely be amazed at how much respect and attention is reciprocated once someone is mature enough to start giving it. When it is your time to speak, consider wording carefully before giving your reply. No matter how arrogant or incorrect you may perceive your ‘opponent,’ disrespect and negativity will only escalate the conversation to a point where nothing can be learned on either side. Small differences such as minor word choices and tone/connotation can make an incredible difference in how your argument is perceived. Again, your goal is to further learn more about their perspective and perhaps share your own, so a snarky comment or negative perception and will achieve nothing and result in less cooperation and trust.
In addition, one must consider what specific information they seek to gain from asking questions. Too often, I hear my peers ask something such as, ‘How can you stand knowing that your side is tearing apart the country?’ or ‘Doesn’t your side know how to use basic facts and logic?’ Questions such as these, no matter how sensible they may seem to the asker, are not sincere in their attempt to learn more about their national cohort. The first question, for instance, reiterates a sense of division, implies that the other person agrees that their side is ‘tearing apart the country,’ and features wording which is sure to draw offense. Instead, asking something such as ‘Do you worry that your party’s ideas of XXX and XXX may be furthering political divides?’ may be more constructive as it is worded respectfully, makes few assumptions, and is clear in what it’s asking. The ability to ask truly respectful and constructive questions to those who disagree is a significant asset in, not only a communicator of any field but also in a well-rounded democratic citizen as a whole.
With our nation more divided than at any point since the 1800s, our nation undoubtedly has much farther to go in mending social divides. I do not have the time in this article to discuss the large-scale social reform needed; however, it is crucial to examine our individual role in combating polarization once we begin considering our own personal habits and beliefs. Of course, there are complexities of inter-group relations which will likely never be resolved, but an advanced functioning democracy is not compatible with tribalism, thus we must acknowledge how much of our division, perpetuated by media and politicians, is caused by a false perception of the other side; our dehumanization of those who disagree. To refuse this self-reflection is to accept our nation’s current level of division and dysfunction. Of course, much further work is needed, but ultimately the first step in resolving our democratic crisis comes down to how much we are all willing to do our parts – even if it just means going out and talking to fellow Americans.