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Dealing With Difference

Difference is a fundamental fact of human life. There is similarity too. But difference is the reason why we need to have discussions about public policy. It is also the reason why they should occur face-to-face, over extended periods of time, and with the assistance of a skilled but neutral facilitator.

If we all agreed about public policy, then there would be little if any need to discuss it. But politics really is about who gets what, when, and how. And we often have different interests, different beliefs, different values, different goals–and, hence, different ideas about who should get what, when, and how. Despite all that talk about the common good and the public interest, our different interests, beliefs, values, goals, and ideas about who should get what, where, and how tend to influence the way we each see the world, and what we each think we ought to do as a society, and what we call the public interest and the common good.

It’s nice to reaffirm our interests, beliefs, values, and goals with people who share them. But many people do not like to talk about how to bake and divide the public pie with people whose interests, beliefs, values, goals, and ideas are different from their own. It can be fun to listen to people do it on television and radio because they can’t hear what we say, and because they can’t answer back. But we often get so wrapped up within our own minds–and take our own interests, beliefs, values, goals, and ideas so much for granted–that we simply cannot imagine how anyone with basic rationality and good intentions could possibly disagree with us. And since we often invest our identities in our interests, beliefs, values, goals, and ideas–and since we often have a greater certainty in them than could ever possibly be warranted–it is not unusual to find that our passions rise as we discuss our differences, and that our voices rise too, and that we are suddenly talking far too fast and far too loud to listen to, let alone to understand–let alone to digest and rearrange our own constellation of interests, beliefs, values, and goals in relation to–what anyone else has said.

This is why political discussions on television so often turn into shouting matches. It is why political rallies so often seem and sound more like football games. It is why we so often seem to be talking right past each other. And it is why it is almost always good to have a facilitator.

A facilitator can slow down a discussion so we can listen to what has actually been said. He or she can stop a debate, and the felt need to have an immediate and snappy comeback line, just long enough for us to hear what someone else has said and to explore what it means. This does not often happen on television or at political rallies or on internet blogs and discussion threads. It takes a bit of time and discussion to understand our differences. But the more it happens in a face-to-face discussion, and the longer that discussion continues, the easier it becomes to see the world from someone else’s eyes, and the more difficult it becomes to demonize people simply because they have interests and beliefs and values and goals that differ from our own.

They will, of course, still have their interests, beliefs, values, goals, and ideas–and we will still have ours. But the less we blame each other for having them, the more likely we are to approach each other as human beings, instead of as Democrats and Republicans, and the more likely we will be to understand exactly what they are. Indeed, the more we talk with other people about our political differences, and the more we actually hear what they say and try to understand why they are saying it–instead of assuming that they must be liars, thieves, or dummies–the more likely we all will be to address our real concerns. And the more we do that, the easier it will become to make collective decisions in the face of our very real differences.

This, or something very much like it, is what we are trying to do at IF.