It's 3:30 a.m., and I'm on a bus between Kampala, Uganda and Nairobi, Kenya, before returning home to the USA. As I bump along the Kenyan countryside under the night sky, I'm troubled by the political rancor I'll be stepping back into.
I'm a Christian, conservative and Republican, but all three families have disappointed and embarrassed me from time to time. Too many of my Christian brothers and sisters have gotten in the habit of spewing judgment and condemnation at those with whom they disagree. There's one very big problem with this: it's wrong. Terribly, grossly, hypocritically wrong.
How many times have you looked at a Christian speaking on a political or cultural issue and said "Gee, that person is filled with love for his fellow man"? Not often, and that's a shame.
I personally have strong moral convictions on a host of issues and believe Christians and non-Christians alike should take their convictions into the voting booth without reproach. We call that democracy. What we should not and cannot do if we hope for a healthy, prosperous nation is make a demagogue of our neighbors because they see the world differently, suggesting that not only their opinion but they themselves are somehow less. Such behavior is immature, anti-social and un-American.
As for conservatives and Republicans, vitriol aimed at Democrats and liberals is both unproductive and self-defeating. Politics is not the central battleground between good and evil. I believe there are black and white issues, principled issues worth fighting for, but these are the exception not the rule. There is an awful lot of grey area in public policy ripe for negotiation and compromise.
Today, the parties behave like every issue is an existential threat and their last stand. Elections are a competition; legislating should be a more collective and bipartisan effort toward positive action on behalf of an American people who expect sensible and productive representation. The same critique holds for my liberal and Democratic friends.
Rather than looking at our dysfunctional political governing system with the scorn and incredulity that it deserves, many of us dive into the cesspool head first and carry the torch of division and demagoguery to Main Street. We've successfully created a country of warring factions, and it's ripping America apart at the seams. When it takes foreign terrorists slaughtering thousands of our neighbors to unite us, something is horribly wrong.
Now, for my humble prescription: listen. That's it, listen.
I believe we have a moral responsibility to listen and gain an understanding of the other side's position. What good is it to hold fiercely to a position that we've not bothered to weigh or pressure test against divergent perspectives. Too often, we engage in mutual reinforcement parties with friends of like mind. We call this pervasive American practice confirmation bias. Technology has allowed such complete fracturing of the information pipeline that most Americans are hearing exactly what they want to hear from people just like them without ever having their ideas questioned or challenged. Not only do we have our own opinions; now we have our own facts. This is dangerous.
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What if we turned off our favored news source, sat down with someone of a different, fresh perspective and listened, leaving as much bias and prejudice as humanly possible at the door? Then imagine if your new good practice were adopted on park benches across America, in school cafeterias and yes, even in the halls of Congress and state legislatures. While we'd still hold different, even competing, views, we'd be able to move beyond slander and seek common ground, each with a newfound appreciation and respect for the other side. It's too easy to step up on our high horse and rant until the cows come home — sometimes it's even fun — but it's destructive, and we need to change.
The sun is now rising over Nairobi. It's time for a new day in America as well. It's time to listen.
Pearce Godwin graduated from Duke University in 2008 and spent five years in Washington, D.C., working on Capitol Hill and with a political consulting firm. He is founder and president of the Listen First Project.