Let me introduce you to my friend Callie. She’s a smart young American teacher in St. Louis. In fact, she’s one of those bright, inspirational southern women who values her Christian faith, loves her country, but also has the broadened perspective of having traveled the world to teach internationally. She can tell you how living in Mississippi compares to other parts of the country, as well as eastern Europe and southeast Asia. In short, if our country faces monumental challenges in the 21st century, she’s the kind of person you want involved in the political process. She gets it.
That’s why it struck a chord with me in the midst of the Hobby Lobby fallout, to log onto Facebook and see the following from Callie:
“I feel like I can’t post anything political on fb. Liberals and conservatives have taken over with simplified memes, vitriolic hate, and a complete lack of trying to understand anything they don’t agree with. I know people complain about this a lot but I’ve been hit with this nauseating sickness every time I read my newsfeed. Social media could be such a great place for serious discussions, but those who have real questions and real desires to understand are afraid to talk because of the way so many project pure hatred of those who may not agree with them.”
How disheartening! Callie’s impulse to avoid getting involved is symptomatic of a serious problem in our country’s capacity for political discourse, particularly when it comes to conflict resolution: Without making an effort to understand both sides of an issue, there is no working through it together. Without recognizing the value in an opponent’s viewpoints with an empathetic approach, we may win psychological satisfaction for ourselves, but we damage those relationships and connections that form our total culture.
Empathy vs. Sympathy
First, a definition of what empathy is, exactly. This video is helpful. It deals more with relationships and human connections, but it makes a critical distinction between empathy and sympathy that I think is important for our concept of conflict resolution.
Connecting with other people is important, unless you’re a sociopath. The funny thing about other people is that every single one of them knows something that you don’t, and every single one of them has had experiences that you haven’t. I like to tell my students that “none of us is as smart as all of us.” The more people you meet, the better you understand people. This is where people like Callie have most of us beat many times over- they’ve seen much more of the world, experienced life in several cultures, and connected with so many different kinds of people. We can gain perspective this way too, but to do it, and to do it well, we have to be able to try to see things from other people’s points of view- we have to admit to ourselves that the DNA God gave them and the knowledge and experiences they have that’s different from our own… is valid, at least to them. They experience the issue in a way that’s different from us. And that means their interpretation of it matters as much as ours does.
In my old improv troupe, we used to have a simple rule about interpreting characters’ actions, especially when those actions are hilariously offbeat and unexpected: “Never assume a character is drunk, crazy, or stupid.” We forced ourselves to find the truth in their motivations, the rationality, no matter how bizarre their actions were. Some hammy slapstick or goofy dialogue could never be written off as “oh- that guy’s just stupid.” There had to be a reason that paid off later with a character revelation or plot twist. In the long run, it made for much better scenes and much better comedy. Sometimes though, especially in practices after long college work days, we’d forget the rule, we’d end up with a bunch of crazy clowns, and we’d play out trite, overdone improv scenes that went nowhere and were boring to watch.
I see the same sad scenes play out every day in the media and on social networks. Rather than give political discussions depth, most of us retreat into easier, safer corners, and we paint the opposition with broad strokes. We come up with snappy catch phrases, we slap up photo memes, we crack punchlines that our side will love. In a mad quest to find comfort, we portray the other side as terrifying monsters so that we can bludgeon them with our ideologies. This is folly. We’ve got to resist that urge, and instead recognize that good, smart Americans exist on the other side. We’ve got to ask ourselves: “Why would a moral, perfectly sane person disagree with my position?”
Anything less is psychological violence. It’s operating on an assumption that other people’s experiences don’t matter, that we know better than everyone who disagrees with us, and that the answer to the problem is to eradicate contradictory opinions, or at the very least triumph over them. The problem with this assumption is that each of us lacks information that other people have, and we’re all fallible.
Confirmation Bias is the tendency of the human brain to filter out information that conflicts with its beliefs or hypotheses. It’s real. Studies back it up. We think we’re such sophisticated people, able to read information and get a better picture of the world, but we really do tend to just gravitate toward information that confirms what we already believe. It’s not necessarily shameful. We all do it. But we should be aware of it.
Confirmation bias is one of the reasons it’s so dangerous to assume our positions are superior to the alternative positions prior to a discussion. We will naturally seek out information that confirms our own positions, and dismiss information that disproves us! In essence, when people assume they’re right before a discussion of the issue takes place, it becomes not so much an exercise in getting to the real truth at the heart of the matter, but a superficial activity to spread comfort and affirmation to everyone at the table. Does everyone feel good about his or her opinion yet? No? Well let’s keep fighting until everyone feels that absolute certainty!
One more thing- Politicians and people on TV have absolutely nothing to gain by delving to the TRUTH of an issue. So they simply don’t do it. They have everything to gain from making you feel that their party, their TV channel, is the right one that you thought it was, before you tuned in or showed up at the rally. Here on our side, there are good people who want what’s best for you, just like you do! Over there on the other side are MONSTERS!!! Ooohh! Don’t listen to anything they have to say! Vote for people like us! Keep watching THIS channel!
Forgetting that some people who disagree with us are good, rational people is absolutely destructive to our ability to understand an issue clearly. It’s destructive to our country.
Compromise: A Four Letter Word?
“Don’t find fault. Find a remedy.” – Henry Ford
But isn’t compromise a bad thing for half of the people involved in a dispute? Surely whoever’s right is losing something to compromise with the wrong ones… Yeah, except that everybody thinks he’s right, which is why a compromise has never, ever, ever felt like a victory. TO ANYONE.
I mean, hey! Where your own personal values and choices are concerned- the core beliefs within you, don’t compromise. Even those of you with whom I disagree, vehemently. I recognize your knowledge and experiences, so I believe in your dignity and the responsibility you take for your life. Set your values vibrantly in motion in your own life and see where they take you!
But when it comes to how you interact with other human beings- when it comes to how we treat each other, and how we conduct ourselves in a functioning society… that’s a whole different story.
If we’re ever going to get anywhere as a species, is it really important for us to try to see things from other points of view and compromise?
Of course it is. That’s how civilization works.
People like Callie shouldn’t feel nauseated to have open public discourse about issues because they tend to try to see the issues from multiple perspectives and engage human beings. That should be how we all act together, all the time. Because we’re all human beings and we all want to actually fix things, instead of trying to feel better about ourselves by belittling each other.
Anyway- Americans like guns, right? Well, here’s a clip from the goofy science fiction film “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” In this clip, a group of space travelers finds a strange ray gun that forces the target to instantly understand the shooter’s point of view. Most of the dialogue won’t make sense out of context, but I love the concept of technology that allows other people to understand alternative perspectives.
If we had guns like this one in our country, maybe we’d get somewhere in our discussions.
P.S. Thanks to Callie Anne Smith for letting me use her Facebook status to launch into a rant. You can check out her thoughts on life, teaching, and world perspectives here! Drop me a comment below! Broaden my perspective by sharing yours!
Have a great day, America!