It’s not really breaking news for me to inform you that we have issues when it comes to having frank and respectful conversations with those who disagree with us. Much was made after the 2016 presidential election about how many of us are stuck in our own “echo chambers” – listening only to those voices that agreed with us and hearing the constant pleasant reverberation of agreement from those we follow on social media or watch on “our” news.
I’m not here to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about this. In fact, there is strong evidence that we tend to view those we disagree with as more extreme in their views than they actually are.
But we are now one year away from the next presidential election (and only a few weeks away from those holiday seasons where otherwise semi-functional families descend into partisan chaos over political conversations). This is a good time to examine some potential remedies to our echo-chamber conundrum.
I don’t pretend to be a magical doctor who has discovered a cure to our hyperpartisan climate. However, I have three thoughts I have challenged myself to hold onto – thoughts that I believe can be a start to crossing our ideological divides.
1. (Almost) Everyone wants the same things as we do. There is a video making the rounds on the internet in which former President Barack Obama makes comments about activism that seem to rail against “woke” call-out culture. While I’m not sure that’s the interpretation I would take from the video, his comments about people he worked with caught my attention:
“People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids.”
To me, these comments speak to a larger truth: Republicans and Democrats, by and large, want the same thing. They want kids of all races and genders to have the best educational opportunities. They want our country to be successful and safe. We may have different ways we want to achieve these goals, but we all have the same goals in mind.
2. Most people have good reasons for their beliefs. Unless you have not given a ton of thought to why you have a certain political viewpoint, we all have some personal story or moment of realization that explains why our worldview is the way it is. Many of us are grounded in sincere religious faith, which shapes our view of the world in a certain way. Others focus on what can be seen or observed as a source of truth. A lot of us have seen or experienced something that has caused us to have a change in our thinking or affirmed a sense of how we ought to act.
In all of these cases, people are making choices because it is truly how they feel, think, or believe.
While this difference in belief does not mean that people are entitled to act or behave however they want, it means that we need to be more willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt for why they think the way they do, rather than assuming that they are “just bad people.”
3. We might be wrong. The scariest part about engaging with people who disagree with us is that it can expose that we don’t know everything – or even always know why we believe what we do. We shouldn’t simply discount our own views because we don’t have a quick retort ready for every criticism leveled against us, but we also should be open to the fact that our thinking may need to change.
There are often perspectives or consequences that we haven’t considered that may be obvious to others. If we are not open to the possibility that we might be wrong, how can we expect others to be open to that possibility in their case?
We have a long way to go to rebuild our trust with one another and with our institutions. Constructive dialogue between disagreeing parties has been rare. However, I hope that with these thoughts in mind, we’ll all be able to engage with someone outside our echo chambers between now and the next election.
Jordan Martin teaches social studies at Wilber-Clatonia Public Schools. He also moonlights as an assistant one-act drama coach in the fall and a speech judge in the spring.For more Civic Nebraska Writers Group columns, click here.