M’s and my differing political philosophies stem from our disparate worldviews; our disparate worldviews flow from our different life experiences. We grew up in different households, attended different schools, have lived in different communities, chose different mentors, and worship in different churches. Now we read different periodicals, see different movies, vacation in different places, and socialize with different people.
There is nothing I can say to get M to switch sides and value pluralism and social justice as much as me. Similarly, he knows there’s nothing he can say to get me to value limited government and free market capitalism as much as he does. Instead of attempting the impossible, to get one another to change worldviews, we accept our fundamental differences and set our sights lower. We know we can influence one another’s thinking on specific issues because we’ve done it. Lower case, “c” change is a more manageable and constructive goal than upper case, “C” Change.
We bridge the chasm by resisting the tendency to present our ideas as inherently superior and thereby avoid projecting feelings of superiority.
Conservatives’ chief criticism of liberals is that they are arrogant. Conservatives complain that liberals not only think they are smarter, more compassionate, and more sophisticated than everyone else, but they also feel it’s their duty to help the less intelligent, compassionate, and sophisticated catch up. Simply put, they are condescending. If they are honest though, ideologues on the right will admit to feeling superior to their political opponents. Like many liberals, many conservative also think, “Because I take enlightened position ‘x’ and you inexplicably uphold position ‘y,’ I’m superior to you.”
Neither end of the political spectrum has a monopoly on projecting a sense of superiority.
In debating with M, I try to avoid that pitfall by reminding myself that his politics make sense given his family background, where he grew up, his school and work experiences, the media he tunes into, and the friends he spends time with. M’s background isn’t inferior to mine, just different; similarly, his political opinions aren’t inferior to mine, just different.
Most ideologues are convinced their opponents are irrational, but most everyone’s politics are rational if understood in the context of their life experience. In fact, one can’t truly bridge the political chasm until they acknowledge that if they had lived the same life as their political opponent they would in all likelihood think and vote similarly.
This realization has helped M and me work through our political differences. When one of us, like the dinner party guest, makes what the other interprets as an outlandish claim, the most constructive response is “Why do you believe that?” not awkward silence or “How can you be such an idiot?” The question, “Why do you believe that?” often leads to, “What values are most important to you?” Then, to challenge M to acknowledge the subjectivity of his value system, I also sometimes ask, “Why those values and not others?”
In a recent debate, for example, I asked, “Why is your church up in arms about gay marriage, but relatively silent on divorce rates?”
Developing meaningful friendships across the political continuum seems like a lost art. M and I have succeeded where many others have seemingly given up by spending time together getting to know one another as people, by respectfully considering each person’s position on specific issues while realizing neither person is going to forsake their overarching political philosophy, and by resisting the tendency to present our ideas as inherently superior.
That’s not to say we’ve mastered this balancing act. We don’t always get it right, but to our credit, instead of retreating, we persevere. I’m indebted to M for these lessons and my life is richer as a result of his friendship.