On election night back in 2008, when the results were in and Barack Obama was officially the next president-elect, my father thought it was the end of America.
It had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Obama was black, or a Democrat, or even the belief that he followed Islam. It was his fundamental belief in increasing the size, power, and influence of the federal government that my father vehemently opposed because of the potential repercussions on the livelihoods of citizens. If you knew the history of his side of the family and his life experiences, you would empathize and understand his concern.
Yet whenever my father voiced these genuine concerns to friends and colleagues who were more progressive in their political views, they constantly responded in the same manner – they scoffed at his fears, chided him to stop being such a worrier, or gave the knee jerk reaction: “That will never happen! Can’t you see how much good and hope this will bring for the country?” By overriding his claims and turning a deaf ear instead of actually listening to him, the liberal supporters indicated that my father’s claims weren’t worth the time or validation.
Now we’re on the verge of starting 2017. Donald Trump is the president elect, and there are many who feel that same shade of fear as my father back in ‘08, who believe that the door to a bright American future is swung shut, and who feel at their core that all is lost. Many strongly believe that they are no longer welcome in this country because of their ethnicity, race, who they love, or what they believe in. And how do Trump voters and conservatives react when these people voice these fears? The exact same way as my father’s liberal friends did in 2008. The exact. Same. Way.
Just to be clear with you, I’m an Independent. I don’t mean that I’m a pseudo-Democrat or partial-Republican, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I’m some die hard socialist. It means that my views are a kaleidoscope of beliefs, landing on so many different points on the political spectrum that they cannot be contained or defined by a single party. Being an Independent has proven to be a double-edged sword in many ways. For instance such a voice becomes diminished in this bi-partisan system, a problem that a lot of people are starting to notice after this past election. Yet on the other hand I’ve developed a more objective and pragmatic perspective on political issues that isn’t inhibited my any one particular party ideology. Watching both sides, it’s astounding to me how both engage in the same obdurate, vitriolic, and childish patterns.
You see, I’ve had this long-standing conviction that we never actually stop being children; we just learn to effectively masquerade in public as adults. Sure, our bodies age throughout the years, but the essence of who we really are dates back to what we learned on the playground. I mean, if you were to take a senior citizen of 80 years or older who’s stubbornly refusing to give up the keys to their car and place them next to a sixteen year old who just got a newly minted driver’s license and wants a car – you’d be amazed how much their argumentative styles mirror each other. This similar childishness can be found in the acrimonious barrage between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, especially during and after this election season.
I’ve labeled this particular behavior “the Kindergartener." Let me explain: back in elementary school there was always, always that one bratty, know-it-all kid who got on everyone’s nerves. He or she would prance around during recess as if they were God’s gift to the jungle gym, make fun of you if you lost at a game, or constantly contradict everything you said. In my case this problem emerged in the form of a tweedy, bespeckled snotball named Ned.
I can still remember one time when a bunch of kids got together to role-play “Power Rangers vs. Dragon Ball Z”. Since I was on Team Dragon Ball Z, I suggested that it only be fair that each player on my team had a Pokemon since Power Rangers had Zords to use. (I know, I was destined for coolness as a kid.) Naturally Ned, who had anointed himself “Game Leader”, shot me down before I could explain, saying how it was such a dumb idea. That was the last straw. Three of my closest friends and I took it upon ourselves to revolt. We went to the swings and spent the rest of recess flying off them mid-swing to see how far we’d go. It was truly one of the best recesses ever.
People on both sides of this expansive political divide see themselves as my ragtag group of rebels, and each other as Ned. And one of the underlying problems with both: they’ve forgotten how to actively listen. This issue has become compounded by the rise of social media, which has provided both sides a platform to ceaselessly spout their beliefs without taking a moment to put aside their presumptions and really pay attention to the concerns of the other side. They view their respective parties in the same manner as die-hard fans of NFL teams.
Take a look at the breakdown characteristics: extreme fans view their favorite teams as perfect and infallible; attribute a God-like status to their favorite teams; mercilessly deride the losers when they win – especially against a bitter rival; and the key element – become fired up when you criticize their team and ignore all claims on principle alone. Now, replace “die hard fan” with your choice of political party supporter. There’s virtually a perfect overlap in description. But here’s a shocker for you – politics isn’t football.
So going into the New Year of 2017 I have a proposed resolution for you: try to rediscover the lost art of listening. The next time you meet someone that’s a Trump supporter, Hillary supporter, Republican, Democrat etc., just stop and take a moment to actually listen to their reasons, engage with them, and most importantly ask them why. Remember to check all your presumptions and emotions – if you come at someone with heated frustration and vitriol, they’ll tune you out as well and you’ll have achieved nothing. Being an active, thorough listener means that you give someone your undivided attentiveness and are present in the moment. By doing that, you’ll actually connect with that person and fully comprehend where they stand, and what constitutes their character.
All too often we only hear people out with the intention of responding back, but very rarely do we listen with the intention of understanding. And the positive feedback may surprise you. Maybe they’ll take notice of that and be more inclined to really listen to your views, no matter how different they are. Maybe you will learn something new, something you didn’t fully grasp about the other side. Perhaps you see where you had been wrong in your own views and preconceptions.
That is how we bridge the divide. That is how we advance as a society so that we don't repeat the severe mistakes of the past. That is how we set an example in our daily lives in the hopes that those in public office will follow and replicate. That is how you set the foundation for a strong, functional, and true democracy.
I'll leave you with this one last thought: when you suffer a terrible tragedy or lose someone dear in your life, which friend do you value the most? The one that makes a big show of asking "How do you feel?" when they already know the answer? The one that just comments "Prayers and best wishes to you" on your Facebook wall? Or the one that shows up at your doorstep with a bottle of Disaronno and "Super Smash Bros." or binge-watches "The Lord of the Rings" with you, waiting for you to utter the first word?
I know what my answer would be.