The Donald Trump Effect
What is your opinion of Donald Trump? Specifically – and more topically – what do you think of his ambition to receive the Republican nomination to run as US President?
Most likely you either love Mr. Trump or you hate him. He is one of those polarizing American characters who gives rise to strong and strongly divergent responses. Many people enthusiastically support him as a businessman, as a free spirit, and as a vibrant antidote to political correctness and bureaucracy; they see his run for presidency as disillusioned America fighting back. Many other hold radically opposing views and see Mr. Trump as a cartoon caricature; they don’t give serious credence to his political ambitions and are astonished that he is leading in the polls.
But the “Donald Trump effect” to which I allude is not so much your reaction to Donald Trump, but your reaction to those who hold opposing views of this man. Regardless of your own opinions or personal experience, if you’re like me you’ve heard many, many people speaking in contemptuous – and often extremely rude – terms of those whose opinions differ from their own.
And if you’re to be honest, I’ll bet you’ve had those same thoughts yourself – maybe even articulated them! (I have for sure – though I like to think I’ve moved beyond them to a more inquiring position.) The purpose of this piece is to help you stop and take a good look at this; to help you learn to listen to your neighbors.
Climate Change, Gun Control and Cecil the Lion Polarize Opinion
Like Donald Trump, the story of the killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe seems to have polarized opinions…and like Trump’s story, it also seems to be bringing out strident and intolerant behavior towards those holding opposing opinions. Last week I wrote a piece on Cecil, and in the responses I learned a couple of things that I’d like to share with you; they are lessons that I think might help you deal with controversial conversations.
As with pieces I have written on gun control, climate change, and other potentially polarizing topics, my style of writing last week intentionally avoided taking positions, not out of cowardice but because I wanted to open people up to the possibility of discussion, to the possibility that they might have something new to learn. I wanted to invite people of all opinions to safely participate in a conversation from which all might learn and reflect, and maybe even conclude in some measure they are wrong. But as with so many such pieces I found that, no matter how hard I try, it’s easy for someone to pick up on a couple of words and jump in not only to chastise my offensive and ignorant views, but also to insult others who hold opposing views. In some instances facebook exchanges have arisen in which personal insults have exchanged between people who don’t know each other, and out of which individuals have contacted me personally to ask, “Why are you friends with that @#FR$%?”.
The lessons I’ve taken from this experience are relevant to anyone writing a blog, but more importantly they are relevant to anyone engaging in conversation about difficult issues. By extrapolation they are relevant to anyone who encounters a conversation on a challenging topic and doesn’t know how to – or whether to – participate. I think you’ll find these lessons useful:
- Identifying our natural, instinctive opinions and avoiding the impulse to lead with them is a sign of strength, not weakness. It reflects self-examination, self-awareness and a willingness to listen to others, however uncomfortable that might be;
- Taking this approach might make you feel unloved and unpopular, but looking deeper, you will be earning respect from many more than you realize, and over time this will come back to you;
- As you practice you become better. Your voice will become softer; you will become better at spotting and avoiding your accidental opinions; and you become much, much better at listening;
- Last but not least, over time you’ll find yourself changing. You will learn so much, not just about the world but also about yourself and how you have constructed your worldview. Identifying this about yourself allows you to grow into a richer, deeper and happier person.
Let me take this conversation in the direction of race and racism, which is one of the most challenging and dangerous of our public conflicts of opinion.
Privilege is Hard to See From the Inside
If you are come from a middle-class white southern family and have regular conversations with white southern relatives over the age of eighty or ninety, it is likely that you have heard stories from their childhood of growing up with black servants and being told, “Of course I think racism is wrong, but it wasn’t like that at home. Mammy was one of the family.” In most cases, I’m sure, this is a heartfelt and sincere comment, but it is one expressed without having listened deeply to the other side of the story. “I played with the black kids just like I did with my brothers and sisters,” may be a fond memory, but “Mammy’s kids” surely knew and still remember that they played by very different rules, with different definitions of what was allowed, with different consequences for making mistakes or misbehaving, and with very different options for their future.
To what extent have you deeply explored your own racial and socio-economic background and considered the extent to which it has affected and continues to affect your life options, on how you are treated by society? To what extent has your exploration been informed by open, intimate, and extended conversations with people not like you: people from poor families or broken families or families of color? People whose families have a history of mental disorder? People who have a criminal record – perhaps a record arising from one mistake from their youth? Or on the other hand people whose background holds affluence, connection, and influence?
Privilege gives differential access to opportunity, and it’s really hard to see from the inside. To start to do so requires investing considerably in getting to know people not like us. To see through privilege – whether our own or that of others – we must learn to listen to our neighbors. It requires practicing and cultivating tools such as those I listed earlier.
We Can’t Understand Each Other’s Religions
One of the most dangerous places that poor listening skills show up is around the religion of others. Let’s pick just one to get the conversation going: your own faith. Is it a religion of peace and love, or is it a warmongering faith of conquest and domination? Is it a faith that preaches strong morals and a system of civil order and justice.
You get the point: you will answer the same way as everyone else, regardless of your and their particular faiths. So let’s sharpen the pencil a little: let’s consider Islam, a faith which more than any other today seems to polarize and to be the catalyst for much opinion and judgment. In a controversial book (Heretic) Ayaan Hirsi Ali argues that there are three categories of Muslim: the majority who are peaceful; the minority aligned with the current troubles; and a smaller minority (among whom she numbers herself) of reformists. This view challenges opinions, which tend to concentrate in two camps: (1) “real Islam” is peaceful; and (2) Islam is the faith of terror, conquest and suicide bombers. And in part because it is controversial, Ali’s argument fits in with really listening to our neighbors. It is only when we listen to views that challenge our own that we can hope to grow. And it is only in this growth that we can develop compassion for other human beings; it is only in cultivating such compassion that we can move towards peace and understanding and a more stable world for our children.
The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (by way of introduction he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr Martin Luther King Jr. for his work after the Vietnam conflict) has offered a really interesting exercise. He suggests that we have way too many unexamined opinions, and that we regularly visit the phrase, “Are you sure” as an antidote. Maybe you can tape to the refrigerator, or set up as the screen saver on your pc, or even remember to say it to yourself every time the phone rings. However you do it, he suggests, every time the phrase comes up look at your most recent judgments and opinions and investigate the basis upon which they were made. Every time it comes up investigate whether you are really sure. With practice, if you look really closely, you will find unexamined opinions and assumptions that underpin your judgments, and recognize that if you came from a different background and had a different set of assumptions and opinions, you’d reach different conclusions.
The Benefits of Learning to Listen to Your Neighbors
Learning to listen to your neighbor – and practicing the skills required to do it well – is important both as a practical skill and as a spiritual practice.
From a practical standpoint, deep listening allows us to understand where others are coming from and to find solutions to problems, areas of mutual opportunity, and to experience the joy of human connection. Beyond that, the simple act of listening sincerely confers profound dignity to the person being heard, which itself can be important to growth and healing.
As a spiritual practice, in deeply listening to others we are both looking at a mirror of ourselves, and looking at the divine in the world. We move towards being able to practice the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – in the deepest way, by implementing if from the place of understanding what it means to be in the other persons shoes. And ultimately the practice of truly listening to our neighbors can bring the greatest and most intimate of connections. The catholic monk, Thomas Merton, wrote a passage (which I referred to in “The End of Karma“) in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander which describes his experience while standing on a street corner looking at a crowd:
“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness…if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
It is only from learning to really listen to our neighbors that we can ever hope to hear them, and it is only when we hear them that we can wake from our “dream of separateness”.