What do you do with people you don’t agree with? Do you agree to keep quiet about the topics you disagree on? Do you cut them out of your life? Or keep them in your life but with a mental note not to take seriously any of their opinions? Do you argue incessantly?
These questions permeate my life. Perhaps it is because I hold strong opinions about things. I care about a great variety of issues which means I have lots I could potentially disagree with people on. I notice subtle implications of things so I disagree with things other people think mundane. Yet I think another reason the questions are so prominent for me is that I believe all people are important. As a child I was exposed to the idea from the book Magnificent Obsession, by Lloyd C. Douglas, that anyone involved in your life becomes a part of you and if you cast them off you’re casting away a part of yourself. I was also remember times of being the odd one out, the one rejected, and I don’t wish that upon anyone so I have a harder time than some at simply moving into a different circle and surrounding myself with just those I agree with.
Another factor, I think, is that the groups I am involved in (activists and homeschoolers) tend to be others with strong but diverse ideas and in both those settings the usual “don’t talk about controversial things” doesn’t always apply both because of a presumption (often mistaken) that the other person being a member of the same group will hold similar ideas and because both encourage a person to stand for what they believe in. On top of that a combination of insecurity about saying the wrong thing and a preoccupation with serious matters makes small talk hard for me and increases the likelihood I will try to bring up the serious topics and unearth disagreements.
So there are lots of factors that make the question of how to interact with those you disagree with relevant to me. I’m happy right now to be reading a book that deals with some of the issues.
Parker Palmer’s book Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit addresses a number of topics near and dear to my heart. One of the topics is how we can communicate, building community and understanding instead of writing off those we disagree with. He writes:
Within me is a power of darkness that may tempt me to want to “kill you off” when you threaten some concept of reality or morality that I cherish. I will not do it with a weapon but with a mental dismissal, some way of putting you into a category of people whose opinion means nothing to me. Now I no longer need to be bothered by your otherness or by the tension it creates in me. That, it seems to me, is the spiritual equivalent to murder: I have rendered you irrelevant to my life. (127)
Instead of isolation and disconnectedness we need to engage one another. He writes about holding the tension created by not knowing or by disagreeing creatively, moving beyond the fight-or-flight response to allow creative win-win solutions and understandings to emerge. He identifies civilizing influences that allow people to work towards this: language, art, religion and education. Though he acknowledges that these can also be abused and used to increase hostility and division he argues that they can be tools for increasing our capacity to “hold tension.” When reading his description of art being useful for this I think of how I use movies and books to encourage my children to look at things less as black and white. We need to see the shades of grey and wait for creative solutions to appear instead of fiercely holding onto our own positions. He writes about learning to really listen.
When we make decisions by majority rule, we set up a win-lose contest. If the outcome is important to me, I listen to you first to determined whether we are on the same side. If I learn that we are not, I listen to what you say for everything that I regard as mistaken or misguided, screening out whatever I may agree with. Then I speak, proposing my superior solution while calling attention to your wrongheadedness. The ground rules of this contest compel us to become adversarial listeners and speakers, ratcheting up the tension between us and making it less bearable, which is why someone usually “calls the vote” long before the issue has been thoroughly explored.
Mr. Palmer describes the time before the Quakers became abolitionists and many owned slaves, but John Woolman rode up and down the countryside talking to his fellow Quakers working to convince them. I puzzle over that story, wondering whether Mr. Woolman was particularly skilled at arguing. Was he gentle and careful not to make the others defensive? Did he worry about not seeming argumentative? He refused to eat food prepared by slaves but would stay and visit with families who did, so surely he could not have been too concerned about hurting his hosts feelings. What amazes me in some ways is the other Quaker families that were willing to have him come and visit and argue with them until eventually they came to an agreement. They didn’t just demonize him or shun him. Mr. Palmer writes “He spoke with his fellow Quakers about the heartbreaking contradiction between their faith and their practice.” It sounds, in some ways, like he drew out their mixed feelings, worked from where they were, but also was willing to really challenge them and they were willing to be really challenged by him.
How can we develop the skills to be able to enter into good discussions? Mr. Palmer writes about a taxi driver hearing the stories of strangers and about the need to have places where we can interact with strangers. He writes about a religious study group practicing Robert’s Rules of Orders in order to practice the formal structures of citizenship, the ability to participate in caucuses, political events and such. He writes about the need to let our hearts be broken open and feel great sadness and confusion. Mr. Palmer argues that small groups of people can learn to be more open, to hold tension better and put off coming to conclusions, and they can help to spread this skill outwards and engage others.
Another thing Mr. Palmer talks about is the need to recognize when the myths we tell ourselves are not accurate. He speaks of his own experience realizing that he wasn’t the golden boy he believed himself to be and he talks about Americans needing to recognize the problems in their own country. As a Canadian I turn to think about the myths about Canada. Canadians like to see ourselves as kinder, more gentler than the states. Whether we are or not I don’t know but we need to recognize the times we are not kind. Canadian mining companies are causing huge problems worldwide, yet our government refuses to take even the most mild steps to counter it. (A private members bill urging that the Canadian government stop providing assistance to mining companies found guilty of human rights abuses was rejected.) Racism is alive and well within Canada and our treatment of our first nations in shameful. Yet we can reclaim the dream of being kind as a goal. We can call upon ourselves and our government to become that.
Reading the book, and trying to write about it, leaves me aware of the questions I still struggle over. How do we interact with those disagree with? How do we know how or when to argue? I’m concerned also about the idea of trying to be open minded, without being so “openminded” that one simply accepts anything others say as true. I think the idea of turning to art and education to help develop one’s ability to deal with conflicting ideas makes sense. It is harder in some ways for me to see religion doing that since so many examples of religion are of damaging religion, yet I remember writing this post about religious language and the idea of how things can be okay and not okay at the same time.
Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit is written from a fairly Christian (Quaker) America-centric point of view, quoting Lincoln and the Bible. I feel like I should warn people that, but then I laugh at doing so because I think of this paragraph in the book:
If I harbor racist notions, for example, I create a portable prison that keeps me apart from ‘them.’ A space charged with hatred imposes limits on my life, depriving me of any chance to learn what i have in common with “the other” or how our differences might enrich me. If, on the other hand, I embrace notions of shared humanity, I go through the day in a portable space that energizes me to interact with people of all kinds, enlarging my life and allowing me to help reweave the civic community as I go. (152)
Given that paragraph and that idea that our own prejudices limit our lives, it seems weird to discourage anyone from reading the book due to its religious and national context. I don’t mean to discourage, only to note. It is a good book worth reading.