I'd heard the question before at public forums when members of the audience get a chance to question the speaker: What advice would you give college students to help them succeed?
But part of the answer David Remnick gave during the McCarthey Family Foundation Lecture Saturday addresses not just the transition the average college student is making into full-fledged adulthood, but one of the biggest challenges of our nation right now.
Remnick, editor-in-chief of The New Yorker and a Pulitzer Prize-winning book author, told the young woman asking the question to make some friends who have different opinions than the ones she holds dear. It's a point he made in a couple of different contexts, also noting that he has friends of different faiths and political persuasions, and he doesn't shy away from those differences.
It's not a new idea. Most of us used to live that way, sometimes probably simply because we didn't have social media showing us what everyone in the world thinks, but also because we were more tolerant of different viewpoints. I know I never thought much about my extended family's political views until they started showing up on my Facebook feed.
I now tend to compartmentalize some interactions based on the ways in which we are the same and the ways that we are different. I have relatives and friends with whom I won't discuss politics because while their viewpoints surprise me, I don't want to lose my connection to them. Those are often the very people with whom I like to discuss faith and community service, because we have much in common in those areas.
I am not sure building silos to maintain the peace is a good idea: We can talk about A, but never B. What if, instead, I work on my ability to be OK with the fact that people not only are different in tangible ways but also see certain issues and public policies in other terms and it usually doesn't make them better or worse than me? I say usually because hate-filled ideas are pretty universally harmful.
I know a fellow whose dismissal of those with whom he disagrees makes me uneasy. How can you change someone's mind or broaden your knowledge if you only want to know what you are sure you already know? My views have shifted on some issues in meaningful ways. And history has proven me flat-out wrong a couple of times. I'd never have changed course without being open to learning or wondering.
Nor is silo building just about politics. We tend to like people who remind us of ourselves and thus validate our views, the closer to clones the better. We often stick almost exclusively with people of our faiths. We are increasingly forming our communities in ways that separate people economically — particularly the very, very wealthy from those who are very poor — and we are less likely than in the past to mingle outside those borders. What it means is we share life experience with a very small sliver of humanity, and I firmly believe we are poorer and less prepared to contribute to the world as a result of it. We also see it in public policies that address the concerns of those making the rules, without much understanding of the lives of others who are impacted.
Most of us could benefit from paying a little more attention to people who are not our ideological twins. I'll say frankly I don't think it will change my mind on some topics, but you never know. I do expect it will increase my appreciation for and understanding of others.
I would be thrilled to see a little sweetness introduced into public discourse that is primarily these days just coarse.