Disagreeing Agreeably

I like politics. I also don't like politics. I like the idea of people having a say in the way the government runs. I don't like the way people, myself included, have often gone about expressing what we believe about how that government should or shouldn't run.

I like that I know my mayor and several other members of the Abilene City Council. I don't like that so few people participate in local elections.

I like that the federal and state government is easy to contact to share my perspective with my representatives. I don't like that lobbyists and big money seem to get much more ear than regular folks.

Our system isn't perfect by any means. Sometimes it still does good in the world, other times it harms the people it means to serve. We may not always agree on what that looks like or which times are hurting and which are helping. But we are in the same boat as people with rights and responsibilities. One of the rights we hold is that of being able to express our opinions about our government, and with the explosion of social media it seems like our nation has never before exercised that right as often as in today's world. But as our discussions have multiplied, I fear that we have lost sight of the responsibility that goes along with that right: the responsibility of being civil.

This nation seems to be overtaken by the rhetoric of being adversaries. That if you disagree with me, that you must hate America, or the poor, or the children, or other races, or so on. And if we disagree, it is my sworn duty as a freedom of speech wielding American to denounce you and yell from the rooftops why you are a terrible person. I've seen this happen between friends of mine and to candidates for the highest of offices.

I think that we've forgotten somewhere along our way that we can disagree without being disagreeable. We have begun to believe that our own ideas about how the world should be are flawless and that anyone with a lick of common sense should agree. That anyone who thinks differently than us is an enemy with evil motives.

I have friends, family, and acquaintances who dearly hold to beliefs that I believe range from unhelpful to abjectly wrong. I'm certain there are folks of just about every political persuasion that would say the same about my beliefs. But what I'm learning from the books I've been reading and the neighbors I've been meeting is that, despite our real differences, most people want the world to become a better place. Just because we don't always see eye to eye on what that is supposed to look like doesn't mean we aren't both interested in a better world.

I've run into lots of neighbors who have radically different ideas of how to best improve their community. Some folks are very interested in more activities for children, more block parties, and more getting to know the folks around them. Others are very adamant about keeping the kids off the streets, less loud gatherings, and not wanting to know anyone around them. Truth be told, I think I can understand folks on both sides. I get why people would want to be better connected to those around them, and I understand how fear, mistrust, or bad previous experiences could lead someone to want to stay away from neighbors.

In his book, "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion," Jonathan Haidt explains some of the science behind why some folks are more persuaded by some types of moral appeals than others. (I highly recommend reading the book in its entirety.) For many years, I believed that we as humans were very rational in our thinking, and that such rationality meant that one side of an argument was wrong either from lack of insight, lack of true thought on a subject, or willful unkindness. As I considered the differences I had experienced, both in the neighborhoods in which I work and in my personal life, Haidt's book made me question my assumptions.

Over time, I've been realizing how arrogant I was when I assumed other people's beliefs were based from lack of consideration or due to bad faith. By better understanding folks with whom I disagree, I've been able to do a better job of seeing others as complex human beings instead of one dimensional caricatures. Lo and behold, when I started respecting others' beliefs more, my conversations and debates with them began changing in tone. While I've prided myself for a long time in being able to hold back biting and caustic words out loud, I found that I had a nasty habit of belittling those I disagreed with in my head or to my wife. Those toxic thoughts and private words had infected my heart, and they prevented me from engaging in mature and kind discussions I desired.

By no means do I have this figured out yet. I'm still learning, stumbling, and trying to do better. But the early results have been promising. I think I've improved at respecting and valuing others. I think others have felt honored by me whether I agree with them or not. I'd even warrant that my kinder and more willing to listen tone has made my arguments more persuasive, especially since I'm not making people as defensive.

All this is to say that I think we stand a much better chance of making our neighborhoods, cities, states, nations, and world better if we take the time to listen respectfully and kindly to folks, even if we vehemently disagree. The world has too much angry division and disrespect. We can do better.