Opinion: Respectful conversations can help combat polarizing politics

Personally, I have found having level-headed discussions with family members who think differently than me has helped me not only to establish what I really believe, but also to better understand diverse perspectives. (Unsplash)

“If you don’t support Black Lives Matter, unfollow me.”

“I don’t want to associate with anyone who believes killing babies is morally right.”

“If you have a problem with someone being gay, don’t talk to me.”

“If you’re against guns, don’t buy one. I don’t want to hear any complaints.”

Chances are we’ve all seen or heard someone say at least one of these phrases fairly recently. The politics in our country are what many consider to be polarizing, or, according to Dictionary.com, “tending to divide people into sharply opposing factions.”

Before further commenting on this, let me give you a glimpse into my perspective. I grew up in Bellevue, Washington, just a 10 minute car ride from downtown Seattle. The overwhelming majority of my friends, teachers, coaches, classmates and even people I went to church with were pretty liberal-minded about politics. I was raised to believe preserving and improving social justice should be at the forefront of every debate. I was taught about the importance of marginalized groups feeling not only represented but giving them a special platform to voice their struggles and hopes for change.

In high school, many of my teachers wore Black Lives Matter shirts frequently. In Advanced Placement U.S. history class, we were given extra credit for participating in walk-outs, marches or rallies. During my sophomore year health class, we were taught about addressing everyone with their preferred pronouns. The morning after Donald Trump was elected president, I remember my French teacher crying during our class period and expressing her concern for our country’s future.

Although I consider myself an independent thinker and capable of forming my own opinions, I cannot deny that my community has had a substantial impact on my political beliefs. However, this community completely changed during my freshman year at BYU.

In college, several students in my American Heritage lecture raised their hand to express their opposition to kneeling during the national anthem. One of my linguistics professors told the class she believed “all lives matter.” I have had a handful of religion professors who have explained their passion for the value of the family, while also denouncing same-sex relationships or marriages.

One of the most shocking moments for me was driving around Provo the night of Tuesday, November 3, 2020: the presidential election. Seeing a parade of pick-up trucks flying various flags —MAGA, Blue Lives Matter, the confederate symbol and more— was like a slap in the face to me. I had been so accustomed to seeing the polar opposite quite literally in the streets of Seattle with its rainbow-painted crosswalks that I had never seen a display of radical conservatism to the extent I did on that night.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an echo chamber is “an environment in which a person encounters only beliefs or opinions which coincide with their own, so their existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas are not considered.” Social media is a huge proponent of this concept, as people are inclined to follow others who have similar opinions.

I went from living in one extreme to another, with BYU being ranked as the number one most conservative college in America. I’ve also seen firsthand demonstrations of the polar opposites of political belief. Lucky for me, I’ve witnessed these differences in real life but most of these starkly contrasted views can be seen every day when we open Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

If you’re anything like me (a college student and avid social media user), you can probably think of several instances this week when you have seen someone express a political opinion on their Instagram story. Maybe it was a statistic about the overturn of Roe v Wade. Perhaps it was a shocking quote from a politician about gun control. Or it could have been a post about a Church leader’s position on LGBTQ rights.

Our generation is no stranger to sharing just about every facet of our lives on social media, whether you consider yourself a poster, a consumer or both. Social media has allowed us to connect with hundreds of people with the tap of a “send” button. This enables us to spread news and keep people informed on current issues, but also comes with the consequence of propagating rumors or false information. This development also runs the risk of sharing thoughts which may come across as hurtful or offensive to another individual or group of people.

Much of what we see on social media reflects radical views of both the right and left. News sources and politicians are vying for your attention, trying to get you to click on the most shocking headline. With this information being circulated so rapidly, the echo chambers we are apart of can become damaging. It can be hard to comprehend the struggles those on the other side might be going through and the change they want to see in their community. A lack of understanding can sometimes lead to believing your own mindset is the end-all be-all for decision-making.

Compromise cannot be achieved when our citizens are screaming at each other, leaving no room for listening or understanding different perspectives and no middle ground can be found when we avoid interacting with the opposite political party. So what is the solution here?

Our country is at a point in history where we are rigidly divided between two political parties. Obviously, both sides believe the morals their politics are built on to be the most upstanding. Consequently, it becomes difficult to convince someone to reject their belief system and adopt a new one.

This is not necessarily the goal we should be striving toward. One of the things which makes our country unique is how diverse the people are. We have immigrants from countries all over the world, individuals who practice a multitude of different religions, people of every size, shape, color, age, gender and sexual orientation. Our country is built on diversity. In order to progress with politics and create a system of government which can appeal to the most people possible, we must take into consideration this diversity.

Sounds like an impossible task. How can we account for every single type of person in our country when we vote for policies or political candidates? I believe it all starts with conversation.

Conversations can be eye-opening. Personally, I have found having level-headed discussions with family members who think differently than me has helped me not only to establish what I really believe, but also to better understand diverse perspectives. Educating yourself politically should pertain to both sides —hearing out the arguments and rationale for each side of every debate. Even though your view may not change, you may learn something new.

Conversations can be scary. It’s not easy to listen to a friend, peer or acquaintance mention something you don’t agree with and listen intently to it. And it can be even more nerve-racking to disagree and voice your opinion because maybe you don’t want to offend someone or you’re scared they might think of you differently. Disagreeing respectfully and sharing your own thoughts can lead to finding common ground and settling on a part of an issue or controversial topic you may both agree with. This makes political debates feel more personal and can produce more sound conclusions.

Conversations are essential. Prioritizing treating people with respect is also essential. If everyone feels as though they have been listened to and their thoughts haven’t been brutally shot down by the opposing side, we can keep an open mind and feel more optimistic about getting along together.

Now, I could take this to the national or even global scale and say these are the types of conversations our politicians need to be having with each other. However, my plea today is for anyone reading this right now. We’ve all heard change starts at the smallest local level, meaning we can start to change the combative attitude of our country just by starting to have more respectful conversations. If I can find common ground with both my queer leftist friend from back home and my white, Trump-loving uncle, then I have hope for all of us to do the same.

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