The great majority of Americans agree that overcoming the division among us is imperative. We have to learn to speak with one another in a more respectful, positive way. In doing so, we may find the disagreement between us is not as great as we thought. But even if it is great, we will have formed the basis for a meaningful exchange of ideas.
None of this will be easy. News and social media have conditioned us to dismiss those who disagree with us as ill intentioned and their opinions as misinformed and harmful. To restore harmony with others we need to overcome this conditioning. Here are some suggestions for doing so.
Understand the difference between emotion and thought. Both are natural processes, but emotion occurs spontaneously, whereas thought requires a degree of mental activity. We need to realize when journalists and politicians are playing on our emotions and discouraging us from pausing and thinking critically about their messages.
Examine feelings and impressions before embracing them. By their very nature, our feelings make evaluation seem unnecessary. And the more intense those feelings, the more inclined we are to trust them without considering whether they are trustworthy. That is a mistake. We may feel that someone dislikes us when in fact they are simply too shy to seek our friendship. Or that a leader in politics or religion is honorable when he is not. Or that one side of a controversial issue has all the facts on its side when most of them challenge it. By examining our feelings and impressions about people and ideas before embracing them we can avoid such mistakes.
Never assume that a second or third hand report of someone’s view is accurate. The one who repeated it might have simply misunderstood what was said, or let her feelings about the person dictate her interpretation—“I dislike him, therefore what he says must be wrong.” Or the first person could have heard accurately but the one(s) she repeated it to misrepresented it. Instead of assuming any such report is accurate, we should take the time to find out what was actually said.
Be curious about the source of our own views. We are much more likely to ask others, “Where in the world did you get that idea?” than to ask ourselves. But it is a good question to ask ourselves as well, and to make doing so a habit. Becoming curious will often reveal that we haven’t a clue where we got the viewpoint. The reason is that other people’s views can slip into our minds when we are listening to the radio, watching television, spending time on Facebook or just hearing people around us having a conversation. Unless we pay close attention all the time—which is virtually impossible to do—other people’s ideas can take up residence in our minds and remain there for months, years, decades. During that time they may remain unexamined while becoming more and more familiar and even cherished. As a result, if we hear them challenged, we are likely to defend them at all costs even though we have never determined whether they are true or false, wise or foolish.
Compare how news sources respond to newsworthy issues. Have you ever said to someone during a discussion, “Where did you hear that? I watch the news every day and I didn’t hear it.” If you have, you should consider the possibility that your news outlet is (a) not doing a good job of finding and reporting important news stories or (b) deliberately withholding news they would prefer you didn’t receive because it contradicts their preferred narrative. The first possibility should displease us; the second should offend us. Many people don’t realize that more than a few journalists, and some entire newsrooms, have abandoned the traditional principle of controlling their personal biases and keeping their reporting objective. Obviously, those journalists don’t announce, “Hey there, I’m going to tell you only what I want you to know and hide the rest.” We have to figure that out for ourselves by comparing various news sources. We should also avoid the common mistake of assuming that if a news network was honorable several decades ago, it must still be so.
Remind ourselves that a discussion is not like a football game. We shouldn’t be thinking, “I’ve got to attack his/her offensive moves and be more aggressive with my own.” That approach serves a false objective—winning one for the Big E (ego) and sending the opponent home in defeat—and it generally leads to rudeness and alienation. The proper aim of discussion is to have both participants win; that is, for the exchange of ideas to increase each person’s understanding of the issue without losing mutual respect. Does this mean it is wrong to want to persuade the other person of the validity of our view? Of course not. But our attempt should be courteous and respectful and we should realize that minds are seldom if ever changed by the end of a discussion; if change happens at all, it is only after days or weeks of thoughtful reflection on what was said.
When discussing issues with others, keep an open mind and listen intently. If our minds shut down, we should force them to reopen. If we are in the habit of ignoring what the person is saying and instead prepare our response, we should break that habit. It leads us to imagine what others are saying rather than hearing and grasping what they are actually saying. (I submit that much of the disharmony in our country today results from false assumptions about what others believe and refusal to let them correct our errors.)
How will following these suggestions contribute to social harmony?
Understanding the difference between feelings and thoughts will help us respond to social issues in a more controlled and mature way.
Examining our feelings and impressions before embracing them, and checking second hand reports before accepting them, will help us avoid manipulation by others.
Becoming more aware of the source(s) of our opinions and beliefs and comparing our news sources with others will provide a fuller awareness of events and enable us to analyze them more accurately.
Keeping an open mind and listening more carefully to others will help prevent us from rash judgment, anger, and emotional outbursts that prevent discussions from being fruitful.
Expecting discussions to achieve the modest goal of mutual understanding, rather than total surrender by the other person, will calm our egos and help us demonstrate respect and courtesy to that person. Equally important, it will invite the other person to reciprocate.
If a large enough number of individuals overcome the cultural conditioning toward disharmony and adopt these behaviors, division is bound to diminish and social harmony to eventually be restored.
Copyright © 2022 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved