Point of View

Rx for political rancor: Let’s try listening

August 2, 2013 

It’s 3:30 a.m., and I’m on a bus between Kampala, Uganda, and Nairobi, Kenya, thinking of my coming return to the United States. As I bump along the Kenyan countryside under the night sky, I’m troubled by the political rancor I’ll be stepping back into.

I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, but all three of those families have disappointed and embarrassed me from time to time. Too many of my Christian brothers and sisters have gotten into the habit of spewing judgment and condemnation at those with whom they disagree. There’s only one problem with this: It’s wrong – terribly, grossly, hypocritically wrong. Of many Bible verses to support this point, the Greatest Commandment seems like a solid choice: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

How many times have we looked at Christians speaking on political or cultural issues and said, “Gee, that person is filled with love for his fellow man”? Not often, and that’s a shame. God help those of us who forget we are no better than anyone else and decide to hop onto our self-righteous soapbox condemning others as if we have standing to judge. We don’t.

I have strong moral convictions on a host of issues and believe Christians and non-Christians alike should take their convictions into the voting booth without reproach. We call that democracy. What we should not do – if we hope for a healthy, prosperous nation – is demagogue our neighbors because they see the world differently and suggest that not only their opinions but they themselves are somehow less. Such behavior is immature, anti-social and un-American.

As for conservatives and Republicans, aiming vitriol at the other side is both unproductive and self-defeating. Politics is not the central battleground between good and evil. There are black and white issues, principled issues worth fighting for, but these are the exception, not the rule. There is an awful lot of gray area in public policy ripe for negotiation and compro$@!& (don’t want to offend lawmakers with profanity).

Today the parties behave as if every issue were an existential threat requiring a last stand. Elections are a competition; legislating should be a more collective and bipartisan effort toward positive action on behalf of an American people who expect sensible and productive representation. The same critique holds for my liberal and Democratic friends.

Rather than looking at our dysfunctional political system with the scorn and incredulity that it deserves, many of us dive into the cesspool head first and carry the torch of division and demagoguery to Main Street. We’ve successfully created a country of warring factions, and it’s ripping America apart at the seams. When it takes foreign terrorists slaughtering our neighbors to unite us, something is horribly wrong.

Now, for my humble prescription: Listen. That’s it. Listen. I borrowed the idea from God because He’s smarter than I am: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak.”

We have a moral responsibility to listen and gain an understanding of the other side’s position. What good is it to hold fiercely to a position that we’ve not bothered to weigh or pressure test against divergent perspectives? Too often we engage in mutual reinforcement parties with friends of like mind. We call this pervasive American practice “confirmation bias.” Technology has allowed such complete fracturing of the information pipeline that most Americans are hearing exactly what they want to hear from people just like them without ever having their ideas questioned or challenged. Not only do we have our own opinions; now we have our own facts. This is dangerous.

What if we turned off our favored news source, sat down with someone of a different perspective and listened, leaving as much bias and prejudice as humanly possible at the door? Then imagine if your new good practice were adopted on park benches across America, in school cafeterias and, yes, even in the halls of Congress and streets of Raleigh. While we’d still hold different, even competing, views, we’d be able to move beyond slander and seek common ground, each with a newfound appreciation and respect for the other side.

The sun is now rising over Nairobi. It’s time for a new day in America as well. It’s time to listen.

Pearce Godwin graduated from Duke University in 2008 and spent five years in Washington working on Capitol Hill with a political consulting firm. He is currently working in East Africa.

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