As our nation celebrates Independence Day, I am reminded that much of American history is based in conflict. The crucible within which we forged our independence was a war fought mightily against a more powerful enemy, anchored in the energy of a righteous indignation that painted that enemy as a monstrous oppressor.
Throughout much of human history, ideology has served to legitimate conflict. The opposing side has either been characterized as hideous savage or unsophisticated rube, but the result has been the same: a framework broadcast by radio, pamphlet, or blog to legitimize everything from the most violent atrocities to the seemingly more mundane dismissals of those who do not see the world just as we do.
Here in the U.S., we prefer to view ourselves as far more sophisticated than, say, our Rwandan or Sudanese counterparts. Though we might not care to admit it, many people here view those groups as savages. And while the physical violence enacted in those places has been profoundly macabre, the ideological energy that has driven that violence has been little difference than the seemingly minor incivilities that ideologues create here. Tea Party protestors spit on black Congressional representatives during the recent health care reform vote. Highly educated parents who decide that they want to keep non-organic vaccines from potentially defiling their precious children show no such regard for their neighbor’s children. Extreme liberals or conservatives who are so sure that they know what is best for everyone else that they will apply extreme characterizations to those who forward the opposing viewpoint—confident that finding ways to undermine their opponent’s credibility will ensure that their opponent’s view gets no consideration. And, indeed, this approach often works.
Left or right, there is a turgid Party Line that must be towed, lest one face public humiliation. On the Left, any attempt to question explanations of global warming, or, worse, to challenge Acceptable ideas for addressing it will yield the dreaded “Denier” label. Indeed, the simple use of the term “global warming” will elicit a quick and patronizing correction in some circles: “It’s climate change.” On the Right, any acknowledgement that global warming should be seriously addressed will draw similar denunciations. Though it has been more than a century since this nation has seen large-scale internal violence, this ideological incivility is no less corrosive to our national fabric.
This nation was founded on the ideal that people from a range of backgrounds and perspectives could come together here in this place and find both opportunity and free expression, be that expression word or act. For many, this ideal still holds true. For some, it has never quite held true—but still it has remained an inspiring and solemn promise. That some who have enjoyed the ability to pursue this ideal most liberally might poison the well from which all of us nourish our hopes and dreams is despicable.
At the end of the day, while I might disagree vehemently with your ideas, I will not only defend your freedom to express them but I want to hear and understand them. That is why I work for the Interactivity Foundation. We are a small organization, but we are doing work that I believe is has the power to truly enrich our democracy.
Done well, we allow a small group of citizens to come together to share a meal and to have the chance to really hear and consider opposing points of view. Facilitating such discussions can sometimes be challenging because people are often inclined to argue or, worse, to try to shut down an “unacceptable” view, as if simply hearing such a view is anathema. Indeed, there is, too often, a religious venom to the bite directed at The Other View. True believers act as if hearing a contrasting view will sully their ideological purity.
Here at IF, we aspire to model a different approach, whereby citizens can rely upon an skilled facilitator to amplify a range of viewpoints. This allows participants to leave a discussion with a better understanding of and respect for both their own and their fellow citizens’ points of view. In fact, most of our participants, given the chance to really hear a range of views, leave the discussion with a profound appreciation for the opportunity to have had such an exchange. They even report having adjusted their own views in a somewhat different direction. That, more than anything, gives me hope that a stronger democracy can be had here and that the promises of opportunity and free expression might still hold true.