DeFrates column: Getting past just lip service to common ground
“Mom, where’s my rescue helicopter?”
“Go look in the front room.”
Two seconds later.
“Nope, it’s not there.”
My son is 3 years old, and, after blinking twice in the general direction of the room, he was certain there was no hope.
“Go look again. Maybe even look behind something, or under something.”
“Oh! Oh yes, here it is! Thank you, Mama.”
And life goes on, at least for another 15 minutes.
This scenario plays out multiple times a day in my house and probably in every family home across the country. The frustrated child, sure that their helicopter/shoe/cell phone/blankie has been mysteriously transported to an alternate dimension, complaining loudly, and the parent, calculating the half-life of their patience, responding, “Please just look one more time!”
Since the election of one Donald J. Trump, the exact same scenario has been playing out a thousand times a day on the national level, with both sides of the aisle playing the role of frustrated toddler. But instead of a toy half hidden behind the couch, the item in question is the much lauded, as yet undefined, “common ground.”
Here’s how it plays out. First, pick any major social media platform, and/or the comments section below an article. Then, and let me know if you’ve heard this one before, imagine the following conversation:
Person 1: Our country is deeply divided.
Person 2: Yes, yes it is, but the other side is completely insane.
Person 1: Maybe we should find common ground.
Person 2: You’re right, we should. But there’s just no way that those bleeding heart liberals/rightwing nutjobs will ever listen to reason.
Person 1: Yeah. It is impossible. They’re just too far gone.
We are all crying the need for common ground, but to date, our lip service search for it has been about as effective as a 3-year-old screaming, “It’s not there!” without even entering the room.
Just to clarify, I have been part of the problem, because who has two thumbs and is guilty of trying to shout the best argument the loudest on social media? This gal.
Those of us who tend to be most vocal about politics are doing a great job of being the 3-year-old. We are all very good at shouting our arguments at the other side, sure that with the right application of argument, appeal and reliable sources that we will effectively convert “them” to our way of thinking.
But it is that very idea of “conversion” that makes our position so counterproductive.
Shouting at someone all of the articulate reasons they are wrong will not change any minds.
So here is a new approach for anyone who has ever complained that “there is no common ground”:
Speaking from the left, find a conservative friend and ask them a question. Not a question that implies everything they think is already flawed like, “Why can’t you see what he’s doing is terrible?” or “Don’t you understand what this will do to minorities?” These queries are phrased in a condescending, self-righteous style of assumed truth and require that every answer will be a defensive response.
Ask a truly open-ended question. And then, this is the hardest part, silently listen to the answer. If it is too hard to come up with one off the top of your head, here is one that has been working for me this week:
“What do you value most about Trump as president so far?”
Don’t cringe, it’s a valid question. Asking them what they value gives them the respect and space to respond honestly. Ask it sincerely from a desire to understand more. Then let me review the second part, which, for me especially, is the hardest one: Shut up and listen.
What your friends and neighbors have to say will surprise you. Listen the whole time without simply plotting your counterarguments. Remind yourself that their response is coming from a place of sincerity as deep as yours.
Some readers may be squirming at this point, afraid that what I am advocating is silence about issues that matter deeply to them. This is not the case. By all means, keep calling representatives, organize and attend peaceful protests to make your voice heard.
But direct your voice at those who make these choices. Stop viewing every Facebook argument as a chance to bring back the Spanish Inquisition — where those around you must convert to your beliefs or perish (as your friend). This only deepens the divide and accomplishes nothing.
To listen and absorb the perspective of someone else does not threaten any causes. It does not require you compromise your values. It does, however, allow you the opportunity to pause, and potentially re-evaluate. And it will definitely surprise you.
Just look at what happened to the land sale bill from Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. With the common ground being our love of public lands, it never even made it to the House floor.
So the next time we pay lip service to finding common, but then complain that, “It’s not here. I’m sure of it!” we need to back and look again. To ask and listen and not just wait for our turn to start shouting.
Lindsay DeFrates lives in Carbondale and her column appears on the first Tuesday of every month.
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