The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer:
Politics are on the mind of many people these days as the country wrestles with issues such as the coronavirus pandemic, racial unrest, police brutality, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and climate change. The situation is exacerbated due to enormous partisan, religious, ethnic and class differences that are exposing cracks, even deep gashes, in our society.
I think often about the importance of connecting with people as people and not objectifying them, which is a symptom of the epidemic of tribalism and absolutism that is infecting our country. With only a handful of exceptions I have avoided political or sectarian comments on turn-stone.
Rather than focus on partisan and religious issues upon which people often disagree, I have tried to generally address topics of how to live morally and ethically, recognizing one’s responsibilities to others.
That fits my belief that the basic hopes, fears and concerns that characterize each of us are almost identical but manifest themselves differently based on things like race, class, geography, religion, health, personal history, and so on. Further, when it comes to politics, I see most issues in shades of gray, not in sharp-edged black and white — my version of the capital “T” Truth is often fuzzy around the edges.
Despite my idealistic beliefs, which I admit are alloyed to some extent by hypocrisy, I am also susceptible to the same tendency as many people to draw a line between me and “them” and to overlook our commonality. I sense I have damaged my relationship with several people due to my comments about Trump, although those comments have been relatively mild, and I have refrained from criticizing him to people I don’t know well for fear of alienating them.
While I try to be non-judgmental with respect to those whose political and religious views differ from mine, it is a challenge at times. I often question whether and how openly to state my opinions. That is something I face in choosing topics to write about and in deciding what I want to say as I explore them.
The larger question, however, is more than what to say. It is how to engage in general with strangers, friends and acquaintances with whom I might disagree, not just on politics but also on religion or on more mundane subjects. In considering that challenge, politics is a good place to start because it is a sensitive issue, particularly now with our tribal differences so apparent.
The subject of politics gets at the crux of my dilemma of whether to remain silent or to speak my mind. I wonder if biting my tongue and not responding is being unfaithful to my beliefs for the sake of amity. Although I put great value in such relationships, I also recognize that our connection should be one based on respect: mutual respect between me and them but also respect for myself and that relationship.
By remaining silent, am I giving the impression that I agree with what is being said? Dealing with friends and acquaintances is difficult. If I swallow my opinions instead of stating them openly, am I showing respect for myself?
On the other hand, is speaking out useful or is it merely a fruitless exercise that will only make our differences more obvious and will weaken or end the relationship? Further, how do I deal with absolutists, those for whom their opinions on an issue are the only correct possibility, what I call the bumper sticker ideologues?
One approach comes from my experience of growing up in Oklahoma among religious evangelicals.
A common method they use to seek converts is witnessing their beliefs. I am familiar with Christian witnessing and have been the subject of it occasionally.
Although I am a free thinker, I am attracted to the idea of bearing witness to my beliefs as a way to persuade others about my opinions. When I do that, however, I try to base my words on what I believe I have in common with the other person. By starting with that, I think I have a better chance of getting them to understand and respect my views, whether they agree or not.
Although that might be a useful approach in theory, particularly with strangers, what about everyday discussions with co-workers, neighbors or other acquaintances? Again, the question has two aspects: first, whether to offer an opinion on a sensitive subject and, second, how to respond to someone who voices an opinion different than yours.
To some extent the answers to those two questions are a form of cost-benefit analysis, i.e., whether the potential consequences balance the desire to speak one’s mind. This, of course, is not a black and white issue. Minor differences of opinion usually won’t do harm to the relationship between people who respect one another. The challenge arises if the potential risk is not minor, say with a person with whom it is important to stay on good terms, e.g., a boss.
I recently read a poem by Emily Dickinson with a line that seems to suggest how to share ideas that are respectful to both parties: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” I think she meant speaking one’s mind (Tell all the truth) but to phrase it in a way that might connect in some way with the other’s view (tell it slant).
Tom Chester is a Tucson resident.
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