Conventional wisdom tells us not to talk about religion and politics in polite company. These topics evoke strong feelings and opinions that can make people uncomfortable and upset. Yet, even in times of political polarity, free and open discussion is a required element of a free democratic society. As leaders, it is important for us to learn to rise above our own feelings so that we can discuss important (even uncomfortable) topics in order to seek solutions to complex issues.
Oliver Wendell Holmes in a 1919 Supreme Court decisions said,
But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.… While that experiment is part of our system I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purpose of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.
Several phrases from the passage speak to this issue. First, “the ultimate good desired is better reached by the free trade of ideas,” and then “ we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe.” The marketplace of ideas is a rationale for freedom of expression and holds that the truth will emerge from the competition of ideas in free, transparent public discourse. Ugggh! Does this mean that I have to try to believe the best in people and that I have to listen to people that I believe to be idiots? Well, yes. As hard as it may seem, I think that we do. This is not an easy task but if we want to solve big problems and understand each other then I believe we need to ignore mom’s sage advice of the past and learn to have and engage in productive civil discourse.
How do we start? Here are a few steps that I think will put us into a mindset of learning and allow productive discourse.
1- Recognize your own biases. Where did you get your ideas? Are they authentically yours or did you inherit them? Are you willing to admit that you may have some implicit biases? Take a few of the online assessments created by a Harvard study on the topic and discover where your hidden biases in regards to skin-tone, sexuality, weight, religion, gender age and others may be impacting your beliefs. Harvard Implicit Bias Study
2- Be willing to be wrong. Have you ever had a strongly held belief be totally reversed? When you think back on it are you partially embarrassed at how staunchly you argued or just secretly held such thoughts. If so, you know the power of possibility. You understand that it is possible that the way that you think today could possibly change. I always jokingly say, “It is not likely that I am wrong, but it is possible.” If we can embrace the possibility then we can open our minds to listen.
3- Listen with the intent to learn. Your mind may not change but at the very least you can learn why those with opposing views believe what they do. We need to look past the “rhetoric” of each person’s affiliation and find what is at the heart of his or her stance. The heart of most people is inherently good and seeing it can at the very least cause agreement on the issue if not the solution.
4- People matter more than policy. Can you still love/ appreciate them even if you disagree? A popular Ted Talk, How our friendship survives our opposing politics, featuring Caitlin Quattromani and Lauren Arledge, shows how two friends overcame the recent political election to do just that.
5- Know when to walk away. Not everyone is ready, willing or able to have this type of open and difficult conversation. It does no one any good to continue a conversation that is becoming contentious. If civil discourse cannot be attained then let it go. Move on to the topics mom always said are safe: weather, food, and travel. However, please do not give up the effort to have engaging discourse with others. If we fail to continue to try to have the difficult conversations, we lose on understanding, on deepening our own learning and ultimately creating possible solutions to some of our most pressing issues.
Will we ever get to the point that we can talk about difficult topics at dinner, on the soccer field and in our town hall meetings? I hope so for our country’s sake. I do believe it begins with us as leaders teaching people the skills to share in the marketplace of ideas and valuing the diversity of “opinions we loathe”. Mom, I love you, but I think in 2017 you are wrong. We need to talk politics at family dinners.
Caitlin Quattromani and Lauran Arledge. (2017, July). How our friendship survives our opposing politics [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/caitlin_quattromani_and_lauran_arledge_how_our_friendship_survives_our_opposing_politics#t-4449
Greenwald, T., Banaji, M., & Nosek, B. (n.d.). Project Implicit. Retrieved from https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html
“Marketplace of Ideas.” Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. Retrieved November 28, 2017, from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/politics/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/marketplace-ideas
Noun Project. (2017). Retrieved from https://thenounproject.com/search/