Living With Disagreement

Living With Disagreement

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I’ve been noticing a disturbing disconnect at the heart of political discussions, particularly where religion is involved. The issue boils down to a fact and a question: People disagree. What shall we do about this?

My suggestion is that we fully embrace the reality that people disagree. Sounds simple enough, and political discourse certainly provides ample evidence of disagreement. But it’s in the “fully embrace” aspect that the disconnect happens. Often, we don’t truly acknowledge the perspectives of those who disagree. We treat them as obviously wrong and they become caricatures for us to shoot down with our own arguments. Sam Richard’s TED talk, “A Radical Experiment in Empathy,” is a powerful and sobering aid to embracing differing perspectives in the way that I’m talking about.

Once we fully accept that people can disagree about important issues, it’s just a matter of deciding what to do about it. Do we let multiple sides coexist whenever possible by agreeing not to force others to follow our views? Or do we fight it out and let only one view remain, winner take all?

A cosmic perspective suggests the first approach by acknowledging that in many cases, no point of view has the whole story. Reality is deeper than any story, so it’s valuable to have multiple perspectives available to help us see more deeply into any situation. In contrast, political discourse is often driven by an insistence that one point of view needs to win out to the exclusion of others. Laws are passed in order to impose the winning point of view on everyone else.

For example, in discourse about same-sex marriage, I’ve seen arguments that make perfect sense when you are completely immersed within one point of view. If you know what marriage is, as defined by God from a particular Christian perspective, then it makes no sense to allow anyone to define marriage differently. But this ignores the full reality of other points of view. If we truly acknowledge that not everyone is Christian or agrees with this view of God, then we recognize that we can’t set policy from within this one perspective. Others have just as much right to live according to their beliefs as you have to live according to yours. This can be very hard to recognize when your views are so deeply felt and seem so obviously true for you. But the same is true for others who disagree with you.

Admittedly, not everything can be simply resolved by this “peaceful coexistence” perspective. If my view is that you should not murder me, and you disagree, it’s challenging to see how these points of view can peacefully coexist. But what is most powerful about this shift in perspective is that it fundamentally changes the conversation. We’re currently using the political/law-making arena to try to win nearly every argument, to decide whose point of view is “right.” Many of these arguments that clutter politics could be removed entirely from this arena where people have the power to enforce their view through law. Let the politics focus just on making sure everyone has equal rights regardless of their view. Then we can have conversations about one view versus another, without every exchange being permeated by the fear that your ability to live as you feel is right might be taken away.

So the challenge I invite us to take up is this: How can we shift political dialogue from “how can my side win?” to “how can we create a structure within which differing views can peacefully coexist and learn from each other for the betterment of all?”