Living alongside other people in a community always presents certain challenges. Fortunately, we have developed numerous institutions to guide us when conflict inevitably surfaces between people who have different attitudes and values. For example, anyone may lobby and address members of their city council before they vote on an issue that is salient to residents. This is part of a formal governing process. What about the other contexts – our homes, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces – that many people must navigate daily? The more people we interface with, the greater the likelihood that conflict emerges, and some of them have the potential to be intense depending on multiple factors. How do we learn to cooperate with those who do not share our opinions so that we build mutually beneficial, supportive relationships instead of alienating ourselves or others?
To begin, embrace the fact that people often diverge in their thinking. Earlier in my teaching career, I created an assignment that required students to complete a survey about their political beliefs. Each person’s responses plot them in a four-quadrant matrix where the X axis addresses economic issues, and the Y axis addresses social issues. Then, they must analyze their results, which involves writing about their proximity to a notable world figure. Rarely do any two students find themselves in the same place on the graph. For example, some of them are closer to Mahatma Gandhi while others are closer to Margaret Thatcher. I always accept their results, in part, because it is not my place to tell them what to think. Not only does this exercise help each person develop insight about themselves, but they also learn a bit about their peers during the in-class discussion that follows. When we see and hear from people who think differently from ourselves, then we humanize those we are inclined to disagree with.
Next, recognize that conversing with different people may yield indispensable lessons. While teaching in the Houston area, my colleagues and I brought civic engagement to our campus to help students develop their public voice and a sense of agency. In the process, we learned about the important work of the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forum Institute. Over time, we incorporated deliberative dialogue into our campus culture. Each event focused on a specific topic that had been chosen in advance. Trained student moderators led a small group of their peers in a thoughtful conversation about the issue using materials designed to explore its multiple facets. Here our students practiced how to have a respectful discussion that required them to find common ground with each other. Not only did they develop their interpersonal skills, but they also learned how many issues are incredibly complicated.
Disagreement is common in the human condition. This will never change. How we choose to approach our differences matters because our behavior affects everything from interpersonal relationships to the broader public discourse. Disagreement itself is not inherently negative. It can lead to a more complete understanding of the many complex social, political, and economic problems that impact our lives. Why would we choose to deny ourselves the opportunity to learn from others and grow from the experience?
Undoubtedly, there are personal and civic risks associated with being ideologically myopic. If a person proceeds into any discussion with a mindset that there is only one view of merit on any given issue, then they deny themselves and others the opportunity to learn more about it. This means someone has submitted to the confirmation bias where they only entertain information that reaffirms their existing beliefs. To me, willfully ignoring questions, ideas, or data that challenge our values is a form of intellectual dishonesty. Furthermore, this potentially damages the community, in that, other people deserve to have their ideas considered – especially in policy discussions where any decision that needs to be made affects thousands of people.
If we hope to build stronger communities, then there are some highly instructive works that yield useful insights. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt examine the importance of “common-humanity identity politics” where people focus on their similarities instead of what makes them different from one another (Penguin Press, 2018). The authors reference the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to illustrate a path that we could take. He employed language that focused on family, love, and forgiveness as means to connect with people everywhere across the country. In addition, Ralph Nader’s Unstoppable explores twenty-five opportunities where conservatives and liberals will find common ground on issues they share a concern about (Nation Books, 2014). The list includes everything from how we elect officials and the freedoms we value to conflicts in foreign countries and the methods that companies utilize to entice young people to buy their products.
Honestly, I have never understood the appeal of cynicism because that path always leads to an unfortunate endpoint. We need more people who have the courage to listen, suggest, cooperate, and build the communities that we deserve. This effort begins with meaningful conversations that include people who do not share our worldview.
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence, and invite dissent.