Listening to the opposition… Carefully

It’s hard, but necessary, to hear what the other side is saying. [“The argument” by Kurt Bauschardt, Creative Commons]

by Tom Regan

One of my oldest friends in the world has become what I would consider a far-right conservative. His opinions on Muslims, liberals, the “left loonies” as he calls them, frequently infuriate me. He’s a big fan of posting links on Facebook from sites that I consider “fake news” that often feature stories that are wildly inaccurate or use grossly out-of-date photos or videos to create negative impression of more recent events. He’s been “unfriended” by many people he has known for a long time who no longer find his views palatable.

But that will never ever happen with me. As much as I sometimes find his views beyond the pale, he has every right in the world to hold them and even publicize them. And he’s not the only one. I have no intention of ever deleting or unfriending individuals whose views I find repugnant. It is vitally important that I know what others think and that I use every opportunity to engage them in debate and try to correct a misstatement or an incorrect fact. It doesn’t always work. There’s lots of proof that it’s hard to get people to change their views. But that’s okay. Now and then they raise valid points that I would totally miss if I had blocked them out.

There is a real danger among liberals and progressives to exist in an echo chamber where they only hear views that mirror their own. (I suppose it’s no different for conservatives or far-right alt-Reich proponents. But I’m not worried about them.) Although it’s far from the only reason that Donald Trump won the last election, the tendency of those on the left to totally discount any view that even carries a hint of conservatism definitely played a role in his victory. In the midst of the noise from alt-Reich party boys, the unhinged ranting of Alex Jones at Infowars, the poorly constructed lies of Breitbart, and the fake news being pumped out via Russia-supported fly-by-night websites, there were conservatives who were saying they were going to vote for Trump because they felt they had no other option, often despite the fact they weren’t all that crazy about him. But we in the left largely missed what they were saying because we had just closed their minds to anything that any scent of Trump support. That was a mistake.

But don’t want to get me wrong here. I’m not saying that liberals need to flail themselves over a missed opportunity. Nor that we must give weight to every lunatic far-right screed. Nor do I buy the warmed-over, pablum-like rhetoric about the coasts being “out of touch” with the “real America” of the flyover states in the middle. The coasts are just as much “real America” as any Midwestern spread of farmland. I reject the notion that because we value diversity, openness, education, science, democracy and a positive role for government that we are less American than anybody else. That’s just horse manure.

What I am advocating is that if those on the left value the things listed in the previous paragraph, we will have a better idea of how to defend those values if we listen to what the other side is saying. Many years ago I was fortunate enough to hear the great Molly Ivins speak at a conference. After she gave her talk she opened the floor to questions and one of the first ones was what advice she would give to those on the left about how to combat the ideas of the right. Her advice was to “read across the grain”, not to just read those things whose viewpoint you agreed with, but to look for the logic, or the lack thereof, in opposing viewpoints.

Because in the end there is no way that everyone in this country is going to be singing the same song or hold hands with each other in perfect harmony and unity. It’s a bit of a creepy idea and not very American. We can certainly strive for better understanding of each other and look for areas of agreement. Nevertheless, it’s important that those of us who hold progressive values fight for the things we believe in because it’s a battle that will never end. But knowing what the other side is thinking will help us craft successful outcomes that otherwise might elude us through our own ignorance.

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