Most of us in this area would label our political leaning as being liberal or progressive. As evidence of that, most of us voted with 80 million of our fellow citizens for Joe Biden — 82.4% of us in Forest Park and 89.3% in Oak Park.
Now it seems to us that we have a president who thinks a lot more like we do than the one who is playing golf in Florida. But in his inaugural address, Mr. Biden talked quite a bit about embracing folks — 70 million of them — who neither think nor even view reality in the same way we do.
The new president said, “And so today, let us start afresh. All of us. Let us listen to one another. Hear one another. See one another. Show respect to one another. Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”
That is relational language.
A joke: They say that when two people get married, the two become one. The question is, which one?
If the relationship of marriage is going to work, both participants need to accept if not celebrate their differences.
What our new president is asking us to do is first to figure out if we really do want this relationship called the “United” States to work. Second, are we willing to let some folks in this relationship think differently than we do? Third, are we willing to listen intently to them, to get underneath the political talking points to what is really going on inside them?
Fred Dust is a communication consultant who facilitates conversations between people who are different in terms of the cultural lenses through which they try to discern what is real and true and what is not. One characteristic of creative conversations, he has observed, is what he calls commitment.
Most of us go into conversations with only one goal: convincing everyone else we’re right and they’re wrong. And why shouldn’t we? Sticking to our beliefs makes us feel safe and powerful. But creative conversations are very different. They’re about open-ended exploration. Letting go of our own ideas, or at least not holding on to them so tightly. Committing to the conversation itself. Committing to the people we’re in conversation with.
“Is it possible,” asks Arlie Russell Hochschild in Strangers in Their Own Land, Anger and Mourning on the American Right, “without changing our beliefs, to know others from the inside, to see reality through their eyes … that is, to cross the empathy wall?”
I think Joe Biden is encouraging us to engage in what Dust would call creative conversations with people who think and view reality different than we do.
Are we willing to try to cross that empathy wall? Dr. King, in a 1961 speech in which he outlined his philosophy of nonviolent resistance, said, “When one rises to love on this [agape] level, he loves men not because he likes them, not because their ways appeal to him, but he loves every man because God loves him. And he rises to the point of loving the person who does an evil deed while hating the deed the person does.”
Are we willing to love our enemies enough to restrain our strong urge to show our conversation partners that we are right and they are wrong, and listen to them with the goal of trying to understand what is really going on in their “deep story,” as Russell Hochschild would call it?
“A deep story is a feel-as-if story,” Hochschild explains. “It’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story.”
What she is arguing is that neither Trump nor Fox News fully represents the values and dreams of most poor and working-class whites, even though many voted for 45 and most get their news from Fox. “None of the people I talked to … over five years used the extreme language I heard on Fox,” she wrote. “They were victims without a language of victimhood.”
And Trump filled that void with a narrative that resonated.
Sarah Smarsh, in Heartland, A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, writes, “Our [i.e. white poor people in Kansas] struggles force a question about America that many were not willing to face: If a person could go to work every day and still not be able to pay the bills and the reason is not racism, what less articulated problem was afoot?”
“We were … distasteful to better-off whites, I think, for having failed economically in the context of their own race. And we were of a place, the Great Plains, spurned by more powerful corners of the country as a monolithic cultural wasteland. Its people were backward, rednecks, maybe even trash.”
If we build trust with those who vote differently than we do by listening not to what first comes out of their mouths, and especially not to the demagogues who take advantage of their fears, we might discover that the issue after all is not the issue. That underneath all the lies and denials of evidence, are poignant stories of feeling shamed and left behind. Stories which, after all, we can really empathize with.”
The trouble with living in a lifestyle enclave like ours is that there aren’t many articulate people around who think differently than we do, and those who are here stay in the closet or under the radar for their own emotional well-being.