Recently, I attended a middle school debate tournament wherein 13- and 14-year-old students argued whether mandatory national military service should be instituted in the United States. Afterward, these young people voluntarily huddled together in corners further exploring the fundamental complexity of the questions posed during the debates. I marveled in watching the students listen respectfully to disparate views and eagerly seek creative, compromised solutions. I yearned for our country’s polarized leaders to witness the ability of these young people to truly learn from one another and wondered if a similar dialogue among our nation’s elected officials could help tackle our nation’s most pressing issues.
Today, we have two types of elected public servants: those who want to make a point and those who want to make a difference. Sadly, society, and government in particular, is increasingly barraged by those who garner personal gain in “making a point” by advocating oversimplified and one-dimensional solutions. They advance their agendas by demonizing opposing viewpoints as disconnected or unsympathetic. Many use thin reports across electronic media and news sources as a megaphone to amplify prejudices and hype isolated experiences. These tactics increase social hostility and augment the entrenchment of respective power bases, rather than improving conditions for constituents. Self-interest wins; we as a nation lose. When leaders incorrectly confirm biases and create echo chambers, Americans miss the crucial opportunity to constructively debate and to solve society’s most pressing concerns.
Building on historical precedent, on the other hand, leaders who “make a difference” work to overcome biases and sponsor productive debate surrounding society’s greatest challenges. The process is engineered to discover solutions that reflect understanding of diverse backgrounds and circumstances and incorporates others’ needs and perspectives into meaningful solutions. These leaders affect positive, pragmatic change via constructive steps, however small, that create meaningful growth over time. Instead of trying to prove the other side wrong, leaders who “make a difference” consider the far-ranging interests, needs and viewpoints in macro-societal solutions. They invite open conversation and validate disparate approaches. By collaborating to address varying perspectives, they bolster the nation’s ability to communicate about complex policies.
Across the nation, we are facing a host of complicated challenges — issues such as health care, immigration, homelessness and education — with no proven overarching solutions. Health care costs continue to skyrocket without a proportionate improvement in outcomes. Immigration poses unique strains on some resources while simultaneously promoting macro-economic and social expansion. Cities large and small are being overwhelmed with homelessness originating from mental illness, substance addiction and domestic abuse. Public education costs rapidly escalate as education struggles to keep pace with a constantly changing and increasingly global environment. For Americans to debate and address these (and other) crucial issues effectively, the national dialogue must support substantive consideration of a plurality of viewpoints, and solutions must meaningfully incorporate them.
Hubert Humphrey wisely noted that “freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent and debate.” Using my middle school debate friends as a controlling analogy, leaders can make a difference and craft solutions to pressing national issues by listening to and learning from multiple viewpoints. The emphasis in our national debate should be on how we as a society collectively solve these challenges. Such a conversation embraces fundamental differences by celebrating new ideas. People inside of this dialogue actively listen to and validate perspectives that broaden their understanding, not just confirm it.
My invitation is for each of us to make a more concerted effort to join the dialogue.
- American citizens: learn more about a societal issue that sparks your passion. Study it from various perspectives. Listen longer and more sincerely. Independently argue multiple sides. Then, in a spirit of compromise, lend your voice to an intelligent and compassionate discussion of solutions.
- National leaders: foster debate that is informed, respectful and multi-sided. Demand objective research and rely on thoughtful analysis of data. Create processes that allow recalibration. Incorporate viable solutions into public policy.
Ultimately, solutions to our nation’s most challenging problems will rarely be simple and they will never be accurately summarized by an easy-to-remember quip. They will require transparent trial-and-error. Some ideas will surprise us in their success; others will similarly challenge our preconceived beliefs when they fail. Lasting, efficacious solutions will be crafted in an open dialogue among intellectually curious, forgiving and respectful people. It is in the heart of complexity — acknowledging and respecting that it takes an awfully thin pancake to have only one side — where transformative, meaningful solutions will be found.