For many, the battle lines have been drawn. The political beliefs that are deemed “right” or “good” seem very clear and anything that doesn’t agree with them needs to be opposed. Many social media sites are no longer friendly places to stay involved in the lives of friends and family, but rather, have become battlegrounds. Causalities lie everywhere; once strong friendships have been torn apart by waves of vitriolic speech exchanged, people who once used to greet each other warmly now opt for cold silence instead.
Amidst all the intense political discussions prevalent during this season, I see a danger; a pitfall that all of us can so easily step into. It is this:
All of us have a tendency to believe that our perspective is the only one that’s right.
Once we fall into this trap, we no longer approach others of different beliefs with curiosity or interest but rather with snap judgements; “People who think this are idiots”, “Anyone who supports this policy is blind”, “Anyone who votes for this candidate is ______”
However, oftentimes, what we fail to realize is that there are elements of truth to both perspectives around a given issue. The truth of one perspective does not necessarily preclude the truth of another perspective.
A great example of this would be common beliefs held around government entitlement programs (food stamps, welfare, etc). A common conservative belief is “There are many people exploiting these entitlements systems for personal gain who don’t need them.” This is true, it is very easy to find numerous examples in the news of ways the government entitlements programs are being abused by people looking to take advantage of the system. A common liberal belief is “There are many people who are doing everything they can to make ends meet but despite that are still coming up short and entitlement programs are a life saver for them.” This is also true. Some of you may know these people personally (I know several myself), people working two jobs, or swing shifts, or other craziness; people doing everything they can to make ends meet and yet still they’re coming up short and the help of government entitlement programs is a life saver.
There is truth in both of these perspectives – there are many people who are abusing the entitlements system for personal gain and there are also many people who are doing everything they can to make ends meet and would still come up short were it not for entitlement programs. The truth of one perspective does not preclude the truth of the other.
However, what often happens is once someone latches on to the truth from one perspective, they think that must be the only truth and hence another perspective is wrong. What’s more, the truth of their perspective becomes the only lens they see through which is why someone else’s position seems so ludicrous to them.
For example, if someone holds the perspective that there are many people abusing the entitlements systems, what often happens is they subconsciously make the jump to “all people using the entitlements system are scamming the system”. Accordingly, in their mind, they might associate anyone using the entitlements systems with being a moocher. Therefore, when they hear someone advocating for entitlements systems they don’t hear “you’re advocating for the very real people you know who are doing everything they can but are still in great need”, instead they hear “you’re advocating for moochers”.
Accordingly, hearing someone advocating for entitlements would seem ridiculous to them; because they’re only seeing the situation through their lens. Likewise, if someone holds the position that there are many people doing everything they can to make ends meet but still come up short and need the help of entitlements, what often happens here too is they make the subconscious leap to “all people using entitlements are working hard and doing everything they can to make ends meet”. Accordingly, in their mind, they might associate anyone using the entitlements system with being a hard-working poor person who deserves help. Therefore, when they hear someone advocating against entitlements systems they don’t hear “you’re advocating for removing corruption and keeping people from abusing a system at the tax-payer’s expense”, instead they hear “you’re advocating against hard-working poor people”. Likewise, seeing someone advocating against entitlements systems seems ridiculous to them, because they’re only seeing the situation through their lens.
What if there was another way to approach these kinds of scenarios? World-renowned leadership coach Steven Covey lists one of the seven habits of highly effective people as “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. What if when approaching a perspective that is different than ours, no matter how divisive it is, we sought first to understand why that person holds that perspective? What if there are context, experiences and history that inform why that person believes what they believe? In fact, what if someone holding a different perspective implies that they have experiences, context, and knowledge that we simply don’t know? What if then, people who hold different perspectives than ours aren’t enemies to be conquered but rather people from whom we can learn? What if the very differences between us create some of our greatest learning opportunities?
As a side note, understanding does not mean agreement. For example, I understand communism because I studied it in college as part of getting my political science degree. I even understand what many have found attractive about it. However, that doesn’t mean I agree with it.
Solomon, widely credited as being the wisest man who ever lived, said in Proverbs 2:11 “Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you.” Guard you from what? What if it guards you from only being able to see something from your own point of view? From thinking that the truth of one thing precludes the truth of another? From viewing friends as enemies simply because they hold different opinions? What if it guards us from our small square-shaped and circle-shaped perspectives that fail to see the cylinder in the middle that casts the shadow of both?
Imagine how different it would feel if someone approached you about a particular subject and said “I believe very differently than you about this but I really want to understand how you arrived at your belief. Can you help me do that? Can you share with me what your context and life experiences are around this that led you to this belief? I’m curious and want to learn more.” I suspect that would be a totally different political debate than most of the ones going on right now. In fact, it might not even be a debate at all – but rather a lively discussion among friends.