To all those dear to me:
Politicians frequently make unlikely alliances. Strange bedfellows, we say. The opposite is also true. Politics sometimes makes those we love into adversaries and opponents.
Like many people, I had strong feelings about this past election season. My emotions around the campaign were more intense than any I can remember. Over and over again I found myself deeply moved by some political speeches, and repelled by others. Not surprisingly, I gravitated towards the candidate who most accurately articulated my concerns and hopes for our country. Problems I had thought about before—and some I’d never considered—were suddenly being discussed in a way that suggested what the most obvious solution might be. I felt energized and encouraged in a way I had seldom experienced, hopeful that some of the longstanding problems we face as a country might finally be addressed and dealt with.
At first, naively, I assumed that everyone I know and love shared my views. After all, I wanted what’s best for our nation, and I was sure they did, too. The issues we face seemed so obvious, and the answers so clear. But some people close to me disagreed about which issues were more important and which were less. They took issue with the relative virtues and faults of the solutions proposed by the candidate I favored versus the candidate they preferred.
This surprised me. More surprising were the anger, disrespect and outright lies at political rallies that we saw broadcast into our living room. Very quickly, we discovered that when there was a difference of opinion, the conversations we had with our friends and neighbors disintegrated into shouting matches like the ones we saw on television. Somehow, what should have been civilized discourse about the differences among party platforms and what the candidates stood for, became something else. Something ugly. And many among us, following the lead of activists at rallies on both sides of the political divide, began to attack not the politics, but the personality, of their opponents. It is uncomfortable and infuriating to be at the receiving end of ad hominem attacks—those in which the response to a reasoned position is to attack the character or motivation of the person holding the position. Whether the epithet thrown is “leftist socialist elite,” or “racist bigot,” the harm done is the same. It simply shuts down reasonable dialogue and separates people from one another.
As the campaign progressed I became more and more wary. If people were “safe,” I felt comfortable sharing political views. “Unsafe” people became those who disagreed with me. Even as I made these distinctions, I knew they were unwise. Although we should have been able to speak to each other, it was clear that some of us couldn’t. Others simply didn’t want to engage in conversations that had a good chance of turning nasty. And so the political dialogue, essential to good decision-making, went by the wayside as many simply avoided conflict altogether.
I have strong feelings about which side contributed more to the election atmosphere that quickly became so toxic. Many feel just as strongly that the other side was responsible. But the blistering fire of the campaign is long since passed; the heat of the election has faded. The real world has returned. We have yet to see how much can be achieved in the current political climate, but the only possible direction is forward. Squabbling about who won or who lost, why, or how, may be of historical importance, but it has little relevance to our daily lives, our relationships, and the future of our country. So, what does have relevance?
Here are three things we can do to reduce some of the toxicity caused by the recent election.
First, repair the personal damage. Relationships with those close to us have been harmed. Brothers and sisters not speaking to one another. Parents and children at odds. Cousins alienated from each other. Uneasy silences and awkwardness that pervade social gatherings. Professionals in every arena, unable to agree with the loudly expressed political opinions of some of their clients, grit their teeth and ignore the political discussion in their offices and workplaces. Unwilling to put their businesses at risk by voicing unpopular opinions and fearful of personal attacks, they choose instead to be silent. It’s not a healthy silence—it makes people feel like outcasts, breeds anger and frustration, and stymies the free interchange of ideas critical to a functioning democracy. Perhaps, for each of us, the place to start is to ask what role we’ve played in what has been broken. To wonder whether expressions of anger might have become more personal than intended, in the process hurting people important to us. I’m all for the exchange of views, and for speaking out against ideas and policies I disagree with. But if the way I’ve expressed my views has caused pain to others, I’ve achieved nothing, and the cost has been high. What can I do to heal the damage?
Second, listen and truly hear, what the other side is thinking and feeling. Go back to the assumption that whatever side of the political spectrum someone is on, we all want similar things for ourselves, our families and for the country. Where we differ is on how to achieve those goals. We can’t move forward together in a constructive way unless we understand our differences—and understanding our differences might also reveal how much we have in common. Even those at opposite ends of the political spectrum will be able to agree on some items. If we talk calmly and rationally with each other, we have a better chance of bringing to the surface the values we share, even on issues that seem to divide us. Perhaps we’ll be surprised to find how many values we share, even on issues that seem to divide us.
Third, forgive. Reconciliation is perhaps the most important thing that people can do after a conflict. As a South African ex-patriate, I witnessed the Truth and Reconciliation process from afar and was amazed at the ability of bitter enemies to face one another and forgive. If reconciliation and forgiveness were possible after a half century of violent and bitter oppression under apartheid, surely we can find forgiveness and healing in the wake of a presidential campaign, albeit a bitter one, in our democracy. If we can listen to each other and truly comprehend what the other side is thinking and feeling, we might be on the road to healing. As Bishop Desmond Tutu once said, “Forgiveness and reconciliation are not just ethereal, spiritual, and otherworldly activities. They have to do with the real world. They are realpolitik because in a very real sense, without forgiveness there is no future.”
Feel free to share this open letter with your family and friends. I hope it helps to heal some of the wounds—the unintended consequences—of our current political impasse.
Photo: Björn Eek/Flickr