Can we all get along? Rodney King spoke these heartfelt words to try to help quell the violence from the Los Angeles riots in the wake of the aquittal of the 4 white police officers who beat him. His words echo in my mind as I see the vitriolic political climate we are in nowadays. I could have sworn that our country and politics couldn’t be more divisive than during George W. Bush’s presidency but, alas, I believe that I’m wrong. We seem to have hit a new low.
I just read a recent poll that indicates the majority of Americans, a whopping 82%, disapprove of the job Congress is doing. The level of approval/disapproval is matching a 38-year low. With all the rancor and finger-pointing, it’s no wonder most people feel like our political system is ineffective. It seems like the majority of politicians’ time and energy (and this applies to our presidential race as well) is spent bashing the other side. As Abraham Lincoln stated (borrowing from Jesus’ statements in the Gospel of Matthew): A house divided against itself cannot stand.
Just to be clear, this is not a Right or Left problem. Both sides are equally guilty and at fault. This is a systems problem and a human problem.
In my view, one of the main contributors to this problem that many of us share (I’m not exempt, ahem) is to view the Other Side as somehow ignorant, unwise, uneducated, hopelessly biased, etc. I read wonderful quote from John Stuart Mill that applies: The worst offense that can be committed by a polemic is to stigmatize those who hold a contrary opinion as bad and immoral men. I’d add “stupid” or “ignorant” to this statement. And, of course, Mill’s sentiments would apply to both men AND women!
How do we fix this political system that many feel is ineffective, dysfunctional, and inherently divisive? I have a few ideas here. I realize that some might view me as presumptious or arrogant for even trying to offer such ideas but hey, I mean well and I’m pretty certain the solution isn’t in trying to prove the Other Side is “wrong.” As my mom used to say, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”
Strategy To Get Along Better #1
Instead of trying to view the Other Side as different, try to look at how they are the same as you.
When we practice trying to see how others are similar to us, it can help humanize the Other Side instead of demonizing them and facilitate greater connectedness along with feelings of compassion. I learned this approach in the Dalai Lama’s Art of Happiness and have found it very useful in my personal life. Some powerful similarities with people on the Other Side come to mind when we try this exercise. Like me, people on the Other Side:
- Want to be happy
- Don’t want to suffer
- Experience the same feelings such as happy, sad, angry, proud, jealous, grief, worry, and exhilaration
- Want good things for our country
- Think they are right
Regarding #4, I realize that we may disagree with the Other Side on exactly what is Good and Right for our country (and the broader world). However, the vast majority of people believe that the values that the endorse and promote are good. I mean, how many people have you met say that they they know that the views they espouse are very harmful and destructive, but they have consciously decided to keep advocating them?
And this brings me to #5 in the list above- we all believe that we are right. Simply put, if we didn’t believe a particular view was right, we’d change our view! The ones we hold ARE the ones that we think are right. And EVERYONE thinks this same thing – that WE are right and others are wrong!
Strategy to Get Along Better #2
We all need to recognize and accept the fact that we are all hopelessly biased.
We like to think of ourselves as rational beings. We come to our respective views through rational means, right? If that’s the case, why do many folks end up holding diametrically opposed views? Well, it is because we are all swayed by countless influences that shape these opinions over the years – genes play a role, as do what country we live in, what city, our parents, socio-economic status, peers, neighbors, the time period, our emotions, and other variables too numerous to count. Some fascinating books on this subject include How We Decide, Bozo Sapiens, The Invisible Gorilla, Stumbling on Happiness, and Future Babble. For instance, we are all subject of what is known as “confirmation bias” – we cherry-pick our information to support what we already believe and avoid or discount information that contradicts these beliefs. Perhaps my favorite bias is called the “bias bias” – the belief that we are less subject to biases that everyone else. A fun little game you can play is to try to catch yourself in these biases. Think of who you support in the upcoming presidential election and see if you can catch yourself filtering news stories to support your candidate. Again, we ALL do it. It is NOT a Right or Left problem. I include myself in here too – I’m not above any of this.
Strategy to Get Along Better #3
Choose to be effective over being right.
We all have this curious idea that we are always right. On one level, we know that to err is human, we all make mistakes, etc. However, we all seem oddly detached from this fact in the present moment. We can’t seem to consider that any position we hold here and now could be wrong. When someone from the Other Side questions or attacks our position, we become defensive. Why? What is it exactly we are defending? If we are wrong, what is lost? Why is it so difficult for us to remain open to the possibility that we are wrong? Because you KNOW we can’t always be right.
In contemplating and researching this, I have come to believe (and I will try to be open to differing views here, heh) that we are defending our egos. And I use the term “ego” here to mean our false sense of self. Just like we have a fight/flight/freeze survival mechanism to protect ourselves from physical dangers, we attempt to fend of criticisms of our views as if they were arrows coming at our heads. On some level, we believe that if we are wrong, our sense of self is damaged or perhaps even annihilated.
But this is key – we are not our thoughts about ourselves nor what others think about us. We are much more vast. Our thoughts and feelings are transitory as are others’ thoughts and feelings about us. Buying into the fiction that we are somehow diminished if our views are shown to be wrong inhibits our personal growth as well as our connections with others. Indeed, there is great power and value in admitting we are wrong, as discussed in a wonderful article and TED talk by Kathryn Schultz
. One could even view this is a great liberation – free from the chains that bind us to ideas and views that limit our growth and potential.
When we are free from the need to be “right” we can then focus on being effective. What works? Can you imagine how much the ability to focus on being effective can help us in our marriages, friendships, and in our government? Maybe it’s just me, but I think if our politicians could shift their collective energies away from bashing one another and defending themselves and their ideals to coming up with solutions to problems, some real work would get done to the collective benefit of those who sent them to office to represent us.
There’s a song lyric by Bono from an old U2 song that is very fitting, “I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.” Ultimately, we can only be responsible for our own change in consciousness…from unshackling ourselves from the constant need to be right. If everyone works on this, I think we’d see some dramatic progress in our world, and be happier too, when we live in house that is no longer so divided.
Dr. Brooks is a Licensed Psychologist and the Director of the Austin Psychology & Assessment Center (ApaCenter). He provides therapy, consultation, and coaching services to adolescents and adults. His areas of specialization and professional interests include mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy,solution-oriented therapy, feedback informed treatment (FIT), positive psychology, positive computing, empirically-supported treatment, and existential issues.
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