It was after dinner – sometime during the mid-1970s. I was dancing around the living room when our telephone rang. My mom answered the call, which happened to be from my ballet teacher. Their conversation was serious and, oddly, unrelated to the upcoming dance recital. When my mom hung up, she sighed deeply and said:
“Your teacher won’t be offering ballet lessons anymore. She is getting divorced and moving away.”
At seven years old, I didn’t know how to respond to that news, so instead, I simply listened to my mom ponder aloud something that echoes in my ears to this day:
“She and her husband never fought. But they never talked,” my mom mused. “I’m hearing that more and more these days. People seem to be getting divorced not because they fight but– maybe– because they don’t.”
More than four decades later– and after 22 years of marriage to a devout contrarian who rarely shies away from an argument– I recognize the importance of airing our differences. Serious disagreements arise in every union. Communication is essential to the survival of unions, be they marital, social, or societal. To quote Simon and Garfunkel, “silence like a cancer grows” until there’s no noise, no disagreement—but no agreement either. There’s just division and dissolution.
We Americans are a motley crew, and most people I know are grateful to live in a country that embraces diversity. While our society has come a long way in acknowledging and accepting differences in ethnic backgrounds, skin colors, religious beliefs, gender identities, and sexual orientations, we are becoming less and less tolerant of political differences. In response to this new culture of philosophical rigidity, we have self-censored and self-segregated.
Maybe YOU haven’t. Maybe you are the unusually audacious Trump supporter who speaks openly of your political allegiances in the workplace. Conversely, maybe you despise Trump as “racist and corrupt” but nevertheless seek gentle conversations with friends whom you suspect of admiring the president.
If you do– in either of the aforementioned cases– you’re in the minority. Most of us have betrayed our right to free speech by falling silent, for fear of… for fear of what, exactly? On the face of it, we fear losing our jobs. We fear losing the acceptance, love, and respect of friends and family members. We fear being called racist. We fear being called anti-American.
But I’ll contend that what we fear most of all is the uncertainties we have within ourselves.
In other words, we fear that we might be wrong about something really important. Political opinions are outgrowths of our deeply rooted worldviews and values. For many of us, they define who we believe we are and how we believe others see us. Admitting that we’re uncertain—or dead wrong, or even just partly wrong—to someone who is also personally invested in an ideology contrary to ours can be existentially daunting.
Therefore most of us simply do what feels right; we associate with people who affirm us. We read information that buttresses our beliefs. We join political parties. And many of us – too many of us—find ourselves arguing a party line.
In his Farewell Address of 1796, President George Washington acknowledged that partisanship is hardwired within us:
“This spirit [of partisanship], unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those [governments] of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.”
I believe that Washington’s words mean: When partisanship becomes more powerful than our will to work things out, a union crumbles. Society crumbles. The president called upon us—the people—to limit the power of factions by warning:
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension … is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”
What struck me as poignant about Washington’s prescient Farewell Address was not only the president’s message, but also his tone. The father of our nation was humble in his address. His words didn’t ring with the bravado and blame that we hear in our Capitol and in the Media every day. George Washington’s words resonate with conviction and humility:
“Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors…”
To admit of “defects” and “errors” isn’t in style these days. Nevertheless, few of us believe we are 100% correct on 100% of the issues. The vast majority of us realize, on some level, that we are not experts on even 1% of the problems facing the world today. It is therefore quite understandable if we grapple with uncertainty. It is quite understandable if our uncertainty makes us feel, on some level, insecure and guilty. We sense that we should know more.
And we probably should know more. But too often, we strive to know more about whatever upholds “our side” and discredits “the other side.” This is fake knowledge, and it makes us very susceptible to fake news. True knowledge is much less convenient to come by—but when we find it, it evolves into wisdom that will help us build each other up, rather than tear each other down.
True knowledge requires a curious wading into the murky waters of conflicting evidence. It’s disorienting, it takes detective work, and it takes a lot of time. To wit: We need to carve time out of our busy schedules to do at least twice as much as we’ve done thus far. Here are some things we can do to expand our understanding:
1) watch CNN and Fox News;
2) read the Washington Post and the Washington Times;
3) follow the work of the Brookings Institution and the Hoover Institution;
4) instead of vacationing at a resort, we can take a trip to explore the Mexican border, an inner city, a VA hospital, a church/temple/mosque, or a police department;
5) attend workshops, debates, and discussion groups that are dedicated to enhancing our understanding of one another;
6) reach out to an alienated friend or family member, and talking with that person, listening to that person, understanding that person.
After seeking information from disparate sources like those cited above, you might feel less certain about having all the answers. If so—congratulations! You are becoming an even more integral and useful part of this American experiment. Generations of Americans didn’t seek certainty; they sought freedom and opportunity. They sought solutions. Past generations used their freedoms to forge tremendous advancements amid dissent, controversy, sacrifice, fear and– yes– uncertainty.
This Thanksgiving, we ought to dedicate ourselves to recalling the outcasts aboard the Mayflower: uncomfortable, uncertain, yet determined to establish a freer life for themselves and their children. Our best expression of thanks will be continuing the legacy of freedom they sought. It is with a pioneering spirit that we—the current and future generations of Americans—should also forge ahead. There is much ground to be cleared for better communication among us. And since we have a right to speak freely, why not use it?
There will always be risks to expressing our views. There might even be fights, hurt feelings, broken friendships. No one said freedom is comfortable.
But if we don’t strive to communicate outside of our comfort zones, we end up hiding in the shadows of a stage that was meant for an ensemble of free thinkers. If we dance around issues for fear of stepping on toes, if we whisper in the wings or isolate ourselves on stage right or stage left, will it be any surprise when the lights dim, the curtain falls, and we exit the stage on tiptoe in opposite directions?