Almost a year ago, I announced that I was going to make a full-hearted effort to pull back from the temptation to ideological excess, and I completely meant it. I was tired of being angry, more than a little convinced that my anger suited the purposes of others, beyond my ken, and fed up with consenting to being bitter — which was not only exhausting but took me nowhere I wanted to go.
Here’s what I’ve learned, so far: It’s not always easy. Absent a grace-filled miracle, one can’t can’t just say “I want to love again” and suddenly — poof! — you’re a lover, not a fighter; by making a conscious commitment to change the rotation of one’s heart, however, things slowly do become different, better; more productive.
The first bad habit that needs to be broken is the one where labels are easily flung about, creating a world of “theys” and “thems”, which instantly negates human beings; renders their ideas ignorable.
Next comes the difficult part: actively listening to those you formerly thought of as the “theys” and “thems”, while also encouraging them to move beyond their own knee-jerked labeling. The listening is necessary because it forces one to move away from the assumption that we already know what the other is going to say; it discourages caricaturing.
Listening involves — and this can be extremely tough, sometimes — making yourself wait to respond to the other, until you can repeat his or her argument back to them to their satisfaction. It also means (and believe it or not, this is even more difficult) insisting that they repeat your arguments back to you, to your satisfaction, before you can permit the discussion to move forward.
It means establishing conversational boundaries that respect one’s opponent while also respecting the self.
Boundary building is arduous but its absolutely necessary; boxing rings exist in part to strip away the dangerous distractions and focus-stealers that are non-essential to the fight. Conversational boundaries exist in precisely the same way.
Recently a friend of mine who is still very much in the habit of spewing out generalities about evil “right wingers” and the altruistic left tried to engage me, and before we could get very far I asked him what (and who) he meant by “right wingers” and if he could stop indulging in labels and caricatures so we could really talk.
He informed me that he wasn’t caricaturing me, because of something I’d said back in 2006.
I said, “I’m not the same person I was in 2006; are you? You’ve experienced no growth? If that’s true, you should maybe work on that.”
He admitted that no, he’s not the same person he had been, and that allowed him to entertain the notion that perhaps I was not, either.
Suddenly, all that baggage was left outside the arena, and we enjoyed a rousing battle of ideas. Fifteen rounds, no decision, but also no hits below the belt; no cheats; no hauling back for a punch with a glove full of old brass.
It was so much more fun and productive than adolescently calling each other names and gratuitously pounding on old wounds, which bogs the whole battle down to a stagnant stand-still.
Maturity, what a concept! About six months after I felt called to stop using labels, America editor Matt Malone, S.J. had a similar epiphany, and he created an editorial policy to help his writers break through a labeling habit that was stalling every instinct to dialogue, every attempt to put forth ideas and allow unfettered reason to get some air.
“The church in the United States must overcome the problem of factionalism. This begins by re-examining our language. America will no longer use the terms “liberal,” “conservative” or “moderate” when referring to our fellow Catholics in an ecclesiastical context. [emphasis mine – admin]
Malone is quite right. Putting away these over-packed descriptors is the absolute starting point for getting anywhere as a nation, or (more importantly) as human beings trying to tend to our souls.
Ideas need discussion; policies matter and debate is a worthy thing, but we all need to calm down, stop pressing our ideologies to our bosoms as though there is some kind of salvation to be found in such idols; the more closely we cling to them, the less able we are to open our arms and hearts to God, who is the Eternal Reality we are too apt to lose sight of when we’re playing Hatfield and McCoys.
Wesley J. Smith is saying much the same thing over at First Things, today:
. . .politics, like law, is a rough-and-tumble profession. But like law it requires some level of comity to keep political adversaries from being seen instead as enemies. . . We seem no longer to possess that particular wisdom in the way we wage contemporary politics. Comity is on its deathbed.
The good news is that we can stop our eye for an eye, nomination-kill for a nomination-kill politics anytime we want. The bad news is that both sides will happily accept that restorative, but only under the proviso, “You first.”
Yes. Some people are going to have to volunteer to be the grown-ups in the Public Square. It doesn’t seem fair to leave it all up to Pope Francis.
Two perspectives (both via Instapundit) on how geography helped to further define our divides. NPR has How Republicans and Democrats ended up living apart and Victor Davis Hanson on Our “Coastal Royalty”.