We could be so much more

Political dialogue needs to involve listening and understanding

On Saturday, the government enacted a set of across-the-board spending cuts known as “the sequester.” These cuts, painful for both parties, were created by Congress last year to motivate a compromise on deficit reduction.

Think about this for a moment: Congress has become so paralyzed that it had to build a grenade and pull the pin in an attempt to get itself to act — and it still didn’t work.

Since then, we’ve had the pleasure of listening to the two parties blame each other. Democrats are irresponsible, reckless spenders, and Republicans don’t care about the middle class and just want to protect the wealthy. Neither accusation is new — we’ve heard them for decades. These caricatures don’t just relate to economics. You’re a tree-hugger or in the pocket of Big Oil. You’re an ignorant redneck or an arrogant elitist. You’re weak on defense or a warmonger. If you’re pro-choice, you hate babies; if you’re pro-life, you hate women. (This is particularly odd. Do pro-choice mothers hate their babies and pro-life women hate themselves?) It seems like whatever you do, half the country will hate you. But don’t worry — that half is the evil one trying to destroy America.

From a very young age, our parents tell us to listen to each other, to wait until the other person is finished talking before we begin. This is not just for the sake of politeness; when we truly listen to each other, when we ask questions probing at why somebody holds a different view than us and allow them to do the same, we discover something remarkable; those who disagree with us are not monsters. Indeed, they are human, and they share the same worries about the same problems as we do, but tackle those issues in a different way. More than that, we often learn something about our own views when engaging in such debate. In being forced to defend what we believe, we are able to refine our convictions and become enriched by those of the “other side.” Understanding these differences is the first step in moving towards compromise.

But it is not just the politicians who need to be reminded how imperative it is to listen; it is many of us. This article was inspired by a story told to me by a friend. This individual went home and visited with two friends, both staunch Democrats, from high school. Over lunch, they started discussing political issues, and my friend mentioned that her boyfriend, who is also a Democrat, was pro-life. One of her friends immediately responded, “Oh, so he hates women? Sounds like a jerk.” The two friends then proceeded to tear down an individual who wasn’t even there, whose reasoning behind his beliefs they didn’t even know, and, by extension, ridiculed the half of the country who shared this view.

Not only was this rude and arrogant, but these individuals displayed an absolute certainty that they were right. They were so convinced of their correctness that they were unable to consider any contrary argument. They did the easy thing; they assumed the worst, remained blissfully ignorant of anything that they disagreed with, and carried on. It doesn’t matter where you lie on the ideological spectrum; whether they tore down someone who was pro-life or pro-choice, pro-guns or anti-guns, Republican or Democrat, this should be unacceptable. Yet in our society, it’s not only acceptable, it’s expected.

At this point, many might be thinking that this doesn’t apply to them or that there is nothing they could do to change the culture in this country. But even here at MIT, I’ve met individuals who are not interested in debate, who are arrogant to the point that, when you ask them why they disagree with you, they sigh, roll their eyes, look at you like you’re an idiot, and walk away. One would think MIT students would be above name-calling. But many are not.

We should all make a better effort not only to listen to what “the other side” is saying, but to understand why they are saying it. Sure, sometimes one side really is right. Sure, sometimes arguments boil down to which fundamental moral axioms each side prioritizes. But more often than not, we can find common ground. We can vote for individuals who have integrity and are sincerely interested in engaging the other party. If those people don’t exist, then we can run. We can encourage someone we know to run.

John F. Kennedy said that what unites us is far greater than what divides us. While he wasn’t speaking with respect to the polarization of America, it certainly applies. We all want to make this nation a better place for everyone, even if we have different ideas as to how to get there. Before we are Democrats or Republicans, we are Americans; let’s remember that in our everyday lives and make an honest effort to listen, understand, and respect those views that do not align with our own. You might just find out that half the country is, in fact, not evil.