Political Polarization is Damaging America’s Listening Skills

by Marilyn Muir, LPMAFA

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Political polarization is currently the bane of American life. We as a citizenry have become so pushed to the extremes of political opinion and action that we can barely hear each other. If you are not talking about what I want to hear the way I want to hear it, I cannot hear you. The same is true from your side. How in the world are we ever going to reach common ground if we cannot “listen” and “hear” each other? We get stuck in nowhere-land with little chance of exit or repair. If you and I were devastated at the same location and moment by a natural or unnatural disaster, we would be forced to work together for our common good regardless of our political or other disagreements. We might even become friends through our necessary physical survival activity. I know that seems strange, but stranger things that that have happened in my life.

America’s political polarization freezes us in time and activity and allows for no forward motion or repair. Our election process illustrates the polarization. We scream at our politicians because of their non-action in fixing what ails us. The political pundits and media continually feed and feed off this polarization (more about this part in a moment).  What if you and I who disagree on any subject both contact our common political representative and demand that they act to each of our individual satisfactions? Just how does that representative make this particular conundrum work? Each of us has the right to expect that our vote counted toward what we individually believed. That is why we cast our vote for specific individuals. Unless you are a party-line voter, you ordinarily would vote for the representative that agrees with your personal stand on important issues. It would be rare to find a representative (or any other person) who agrees with you on every issue. We do not even get that with our own families.

At times we individually get to make difficult choices between those issues. In order for your opinion to count in any way, you must vote. A current example of a conflict within personal issues is environment versus energy needs. Do we continue to pay the price energy-wise which has us all economically screaming (no argument there) or do we continue our decimation of our environment and the resultant and natural backlash? Ask anyone who has recently gone through severe weather devastation of any form whether they are willing to face the destructive force of nature such as a hurricane, flood, earthquake, tornado or tsunami… or pay more for energy. To understand the difference, you just have to be willing to stand in a victim’s shoes as they faced the fury of nature. Such experience tends to be mind changing!

We already decided that we personally cannot solve our disagreement and that is why we would take personal action with our political representative. That person supposedly represents each of us equally, and truly cannot possibly function in opposing directions at the same time. Does our representative stop because they are confused by our conflicting demands? Do they vote for one side or the other just to infuriate one of us? Do any of their own personal judgment and opinion enter into their decision and action? We hope we have chosen decisive people to represent and lead us, those who have the finest minds and skills. Are they entitled to act as individuals? Is it possible that they might see both sides of the issue and find no way out of the stalemate? Is it possible that once inside the process they were forced to change their minds? If you stand at a door and knock, you speculate on what you will find inside. Once you are invited in and that door closes, you might find that your speculations were not valid and that you must change your rationale… and your vote. Something similar just occurred to me on the concept of net neutrality. I am not sure I understood it correctly when I signed a petition. Today I have doubts as to my own vote. As we learn new elements of an issue, we may find our conclusions changing. Please know I am also aware of the misuses of political power, but I choose not to address that in this article.

We choose to place potential solution on the shoulders of a system that we continually ridicule. Let’s see… common discussion reflects that we think our political system is broken. We collectively think the political system is a bureaucratic nightmare that goes nowhere, does nothing and needs to be thrown out like garbage. Yet we somehow also believe that this broken system is going to fix what ails us. Is that logical on our part? We think all politicians should be voted out of office (or worse). Those cretins should be replaced by noble people who will be super-human, honest, diligent, responsible, etc. (more wonderful descriptions), and who sincerely desire to be public servants. I am not sure where we are going to find those noble humans to nominate for office. I know thousands of good people and I cannot suggest any one in particular that could fill that nobility role.  Even if we know and could find one to nominate, could we get them elected?

Once elected, will they do any better than those who have gone before them and are being replaced? Once inside the system will they be able to perform better or different actions to fix what ails that system? Will our wonderful hopes be realized in terms of fixing what is wrong? It only takes our representative one decision to maintain or discard our belief and our loyalty, if they vote against what we believe in. Despite the fact that we have agreed with their actions up to that point, one particular decision is repulsive to us and we abandon them. We voters are quite fickle that way. We tend to believe and act on “If you are with me, you are my friend. If you are not with me, you must be my enemy” thinking. That is a bunch of nonsense. You and I will disagree from time to time. We are not meant to be in lock-step agreement on everything. We are individuals, and therefore we will differ on various issues. The same will be true of any representative we elect. If we substantially agree, we can make it work. If we substantially disagree, I have my upcoming vote.

I mentioned that I would address political pundits and media further. Those who can, do; those who cannot, talk about it. Before I manage to get taken wrong, I watch the news (including politics) regularly, and of course I have my favorites. My general statement here would be that the American public and those who enter our homes and minds via the media (and that includes pundits of all types) seem to be caught in sound bites and repetition. We appear to be caught in voyeurism and media judgment. The paparazzi have provided us with the opinion we can butt our noses in where it just does not belong. Some of what goes on in your life is really none of my business and does not belong on the air. Our curiosity should not come at the cost of individual privacy issues. How would we feel if the cameras and mikes were turned on our lives? Invaded!

Also, if you say something often enough, what was truly trivial takes on unwarranted importance. I do not need to know and I personally resent having such nonsense shoved down my throat multiple times a day disguised as news. It does not inform me. It does not help me make better choices. This is a big world and there is an abundance of news to report, real news, not the salacious and the disturbing, and definitely not lies. I prefer true life to sound bites – much more interesting. My choice is to change stations or turn it off, and I do.

However, my individual listening is not all that is being affected or infected. If others listen to such drivel and particularly take in the repetition of gossip or personal opinion as factual information, that will affect me personally. How? It will affect me through the destructive mis-education of others. Just because I have turned off what I find unhealthy or unreliable does not mean it was turned off everywhere. It influences many, and that collective in turn can affect me. I can easily choose not to allow it to infect my thought process and decision-making ability. However, the collective value still has an effect on me.

Too many political discussions take on slants and directions that do not contribute to our overall education or good information. I watch a variety of television programming just to get a broader view. Sometimes I watch stuff I do not agree with or I am not comfortable with what is being said. However, ignorance will never be my friend, so I watch all sides.

Misinformation, misdirection, lies and personal opinion are continually being passed off as news. Any of that nonsense is not news, it is misinformation or personal opinion by whatever means. It feeds and exacerbates the political polarization that already exists. Particularly disturbing are the lies that are told enough times and with a tiny bit of truth embedded within that sure sound like the truth. Repeat it enough and it becomes a truth of repetition, but not one that is reliable. As I mentioned in a previous article, if it is not the whole truth, it is a lie.

By the way, pundits and media include you and me as well since we voice our personal opinions. If we are fully educated on issues, if we are completely truthful and forthcoming but not withholding important elements of the overall argument, and we are not leaning on knee-jerk reactions to make our point, we just might have something valuable to say.

Our country needs our best thoughts, our best efforts, our ability to listen and to hear, our best vote, our best representatives, and then it needs our faith that we can pull this off. We can fix what is wrong. But healing and repair of that which is broken politically starts with listening to the other side. We then must remember that the position the other side holds has as much validity to that believer as the side on which we stand. They may be misinformed, uneducated, or wrong (or is that your side?) but their stand is their firm conviction. Freedom and our way of life is worth listening, hearing, considering, and looking for commonality in order to fix what is not working politically. If we can do this, we could find more ways to use this wonderful tool, listening.  Good rule of thumb… You have two ears and one mouth. Listen twice as much as you talk. Do not let your mouth overpower your ears.

Published on EZine online April, 2010, republished with slight editing.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.