Listening Through Disagreement

By Gabe Penk

What if presidential campaigning wasn’t about the usual televised debates and campaign rallies? Today politicians gain further outlets to shape national discourse while voters are expected to listen and pledge support based on whose platform is more agreeable (or less disagreeable.) What if we reversed the roles? What if we citizens started the dialogue while the candidates did the listening? Rather than courting particular demographics through divisive rhetoric and ads, candidates would challenge each other by demonstrating themselves to be the best listener. That would mean appealing to voters not in their fierce speeches or bold resolve, but in their effort to listen openly to the endless diversity of viewpoints which compose this country.

I’ll admit, this strategy might leave most (if not all) the current candidates at a significant disadvantage. And certainly it would be no easy task to listen to a population as large and diverse as that of the United States while resisting the habit of stereotyping and skirting around views different from one’s own. These are just fanciful imaginings anyway, and I don’t expect to see such a radical shift in political campaigns anytime soon. However, there is no reason why this practice of listening across political divides can’t begin between us, the people.

This isn’t always an easy proposition to get comfortable with. If I found myself speaking politics with a Trump supporter, I might first to denounce Trump as racist, xenophobic, sexist, fascist, etc… Or I might try to change the subject and avoid spoiling the conversation in a cacophony of disagreement. Or if I deem it hopeless anyway, I might save my temper, skirt the issue and the person entirely, and console myself with the fact that there are plenty of other people who share my own beliefs, including a fear of Trump. But all three of these options only further prevent any possibility for compassionate dialogue.

Irrespective of my own concerns on these matters, I still must accept that Trump supporters are genuine, that his candidacy is not a joke. His support has origins in fears and concerns which are exposed, but not invented by his campaign. For many, engaging in dialogue with Trump supporters may be an extreme and controversial example given his campaign’s violent, hateful, and discriminatory rhetoric. Yet having never discussed political issues with any Trump supporter, and very few republicans, I only know a stereotype of my political “other.”

Likewise, my own views are more complex than any stereotype others may apply to me, even if I too believe they are true. For instance, I am a socialist, Bernie supporter, and support the cause of racial justice. At least these are categories I identify with. But I may still disagree with Bernie that racial inequality can be addressed in the same way as class issues. Race is not just a class issue because many still believe, and our institutions reflect a belief that white lives matter more.

Yet, articulating this argument, or giving my support in words to the Black Lives Matter movement or EC Students Against Racism can be a very empty gesture. Or solely a selfish act in which I try to appear unpolluted by racist thoughts. If I fear my own racism, then I end up never facing what I have learned to avoid by finding comfort in being white. Furthermore, to avoid my own racism, I make myself believe that there is a clear divide between being racist and being absolved of racism. If I can trick myself to think I am on the “right” side, then I again undermine my responsibility to understand what it means to identify as white, and see beyond the limits I have learned in being white. Being white cannot be an excuse; it is a powerful deception which I must learn to take responsibility for.

Pledging support in the fight against racism does not provide some certificate of proof that you stood on “the right side of history.” That assumes that our every decision is reduced to a simple right or wrong dualism. Additionally, this robs history of its chorus of different voices and viewpoint and pretends that history is a trend toward a distant, but reachable single conclusion. Our two-party political system seems to encourages this understanding by impossibly placing all possible perspectives into the hands of either the left or the right. No wonder it’s so hard to sustain dialogue that strives to engage these two camps.

And what human being actually resides solely within either category? I think it is fair to accept that we each necessarily hold our own opinions and viewpoints as just and true, though we may be less firm in these convictions than we let on. To reject or to proselytize the “other side” are similarly unproductive because that gesture assumes there exists some objectively moral high ground to which we will all eventually find our way. Of course, our views themselves change over time. This is a large part of what a liberal arts education should offer: engagement with perspectives which challenge our own convictions and inspire new ways of seeing and understanding.

Through honest dialogue we seek to see one another in greater depth than the stereotypes of “conservative,” and “liberal,” even categories like “racist.” I don’t know anyone who self-identifies as racist. For most, the word “racist” is so repulsive it can be difficult to see oneself as such. But racism isn’t some abstracted character flaw, but a real form of violence enacted everyday by many of us without even being conscious of it. Compassionate dialogue is an attempt to better understand each other beneath the facade of simple two-sided issues and beliefs, but more importantly, it is about learning to see ourselves more clearly. We need each other to challenge ourselves and to help us see ourselves in a new light.

Is it possible to facilitate this kind of respectful dialogue on campus? Do we have the courage to speak face-to-face and nurture compassion while listening in disagreement? No doubt, it can be uncomfortable to challenge our personal convictions, but this space would be more than that. In it, we would practice listening deeply across common political divides. We would support conversation that doesn’t try to persuade or criticize, but fosters an understanding which acknowledges difference of opinion, just as it recognizes one’s own convictions are not absolute truths. No doubt, we will fall into old habits trying to argue our positions while our emotions rise up within us. And emotion should be conveyed and respected. But since these stirrings don’t simply dissolve after election season or the success of a movement, let’s nurture a lasting culture of listening.

This entry was posted in Issue 6: March 21, 2016. Bookmark the permalink.

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