During his recent visit to Seattle, author, teacher and activist Parker Palmer spoke at Town Hall as part of an engaging panel about civility in public discourse. Parker’s message, echoed by his fellow panelists, was that democracy is threatened by our lost ability to talk to one another about our differences. “Democracy,” he said, “is more about being in right relationship with each other than it is about being right.”
Two days after attending the panel, I turned 50. Surrounded by many friends and family members at a party at my house, I was struck by how much of my world was made up of people who think like me. I’ve done a lot of personal and professional work to bridge divisions of class and race, and yet it’s rare that I am in community with people whose worldview is fundamentally different than mine. Even at Real Change, where my days are often punctuated by exchanges with people who are very different from me demographically, I rarely come into contact with people different from me politically. If someone doesn’t share my ideals of economic justice, they are not “my tribe.”
I have one remaining friend who is a Republican. Really, it’s a stretch to call Bill a friend because we are mostly out of touch. The last time we spoke was earlier this year just after he announced his candidacy for public office. I reached out to ask him about his views on taxation and unions. He didn’t give me the “right” answer, and I let it go. I also decided not to contribute to his campaign and thought little of it again. Bill is as upstanding a guy as I’ve ever met. He’s an ex-Marine with as kind and gentle a heart as anyone I know. I had an opportunity to engage in dialogue, but it was apparently more important for me to be right than it was to explore our differences.
During the panel discussion at Town Hall, Palmer dispelled the idea that this dialogue is some kind of Pollyanna romanticism. He told a personal story about meeting Rep. John Lewis and hearing him speak about his dialogue and reconciliation with an ex-KKK member, someone who had been part of a gang who had attacked and beaten him 20 years earlier. Palmer also spoke about the remarkable new project called Living Room Conversations that features dialogue between Joan Blades (moveon.org) and Mark Meckler (co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots) over a range of the most pressing issues of our day.
I am not naive enough to think that dialogue will transcend partisan politics locally or nationally: Obama’s taken that tack, and it has failed miserably. But I do think that it’s on us as common citizens to begin. It’s on us to engage with those with whom we disagree with. To hold, as Palmer says, the tension inherent in those disagreements long enough to discover whether there is common ground. If we can’t hold those tensions in our immediate circles and our communities, how can we expect our institutions to do so?
It’s disconcerting for me, given the work I do, to admit that I sometimes have a hard time cultivating an appreciation of the "other."
I start from a place of fear: that somehow by accepting those with different values I am selling out my own. So I create small circles of community where everyone thinks like me, and we talk about what’s wrong with “them” instead of opening up to the newness that can come from a dialogue of differences.
It would do me, and I suspect a lot of progressives, plenty of good to periodically reach toward those whose views we typically discard as part of the problem.
We might just discover a thing or two in the process.