To bridge a divide, resist dogmatism, absolutes

If you’re secure in your beliefs, you should be willing to hear someone else’s opinion.

I recently had a political conversation with a conservative. He found it refreshing that we could discuss and disagree without a major argument. How was this possible? We’re both moderates who believe both sides of the political spectrum have valid points.

A 2019 poll revealed that Democratic and Republican priorities are so different that compromise is next to impossible. Democrats place health care on top of their list, followed by education, the environment, Medicare, and poverty. Republicans focus on terrorism, the economy, Social Security, immigration, and the military. (“A Warning” by Anonymous).

The question we as a nation are facing is not so much who is right and who is wrong, but how can we be civil in our discussions?

I’ve been teaching a series of classes to residents at a senior retirement community. The topic is “The History of Political Parties.” My last topic will deal with the 2020 Democratic primaries. Not everyone in the class of 42 agrees with my political views which can’t help but seep out. Some ask my opinion, and I give my thoughts. I also tell them they don’t have to agree with me. Some do, some don’t. People of opposing views can share differing perspectives if they can allow for differences.

One of my students came up afterward, telling me he enjoyed the class while also sharing that he supports Trump and will vote for him in 2020. I asked him why he will vote for him. His response was that during Trump’s presidency, the economy has been booming. His investment portfolio has benefitted. That’s all that mattered to him. I just listened and decided not to point out that presidents really don’t have much control over the economy except to act as cheerleaders. My thought was that I wasn’t going to convince him to change his mind, so why argue?

Politics and religion are usually taboo topics because there are no absolute answers, only strongly held beliefs. I believe what I do but I am deeply aware that I don’t have absolute certainty, only reasonable doubt. Having been in a cult in my late teens and early twenties, I realize that when I become dogmatic it is because I am not sure of my views.

Since I live without much absolute certainty, and I’m secure in my beliefs, I can afford to listen to others who differ with me. They might have an idea I can learn. I recently read the “Ask Marilyn” column in the Sunday Parade Magazine. She is considered a genius. Someone asked her about politics. Her answer was that if you want to be objective, don’t belong to any party. Being a card-carrying Democrat or Republican almost guarantees that it will be difficult for you to see the positive points of the other. Political parties become like religions where there are true believers and heretics. People believe what they do because their life experiences have shaped them. Parties further shape beliefs of those who join.

I’ve been a teacher for about 43 years now. Most teachers go into education because they value people and human relationships. Most teachers are nurturers. Conservatives emphasize making money and cutting taxes to help businesses. As you can see from the survey priorities above, concern for security also ranks high on their list. Progressives tend to be inclusive, while conservatives favor exclusivity. Rather than fight the differences, acceptance of the differing values is far more rational.

I’ve shared before about my conservative 94-year-old aunt in Montana who deeply favors Trump. I’ve known her my entire life. There are many areas where we hold similar views. Why focus on the one view that divides us? I focus instead on what we have in common rather than where we differ.

To conclude: 1) Focus on civility by telling others they don’t have to agree with your views. 2) Dogmatism is usually a sign of insecurity and pride, so take that into account when expressing opinions. 3) Keep silent rather than trying to have the last word. 4) Focus on commonly held views rather than differences. Emphasize preserving relationships rather than being right.

Being civil is not easy. I have to struggle to be polite and reasonable when I get occasional critical emails about my column.

(As Ben Stein noted: “Personal relationships are the fertile soil from which all advancement, all success, all achievement in real life grows.”)

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