By: Nick Bergeman ~Staff Columnist~
I recall a Facebook friend sharing a picture from the Humans of New York page of a young black woman, I can remember so little about what she looked like; however, I clearly remember the words on the post, which was an exchange between the photographer and young woman. She recommended that a way to change the world was to read books by people you disagree with. That moment planted a seed in my consciousness.
I have no idea how long ago I saw that post, but it must have been at least a year ago. It could have been multiple years ago. I did not think much of it at the time, but it has stuck with me and popped up in my mind from time to time. As I have reflected on the message, those words seem to have grown into something grander to me.
This may be a little bit more difficult than prescribing a reading list, but I think it recommends a new approach to the way we facilitate discussions and form our opinions. I realized at a certain point recently that it had changed the entire way I think about disagreements and arguing.
Disagreement, for lack of a better word, is good. But only if you do it right.
There is great potential in a debate, but none in a fight. Fights happen when respect breaks down and we become so involved in what we think that we cannot empathize with the other side nor consider their perspective. The most convenient example of this is in the political system, which so often breaks down under the weight of the disagreements that turn into fights.
Freedom and democracy and the growth of a society are all built on the backs of great minds coming together to discuss the hope for a better future and the means to accomplish it. Yes, we disagree and we will continue to do so, but progress requires putting aside our pettiness and properly engaging with anyone and everyone. The young woman from the picture’s statement gave me some insight about how we approach these discussions.
Do not merely try to listen to the other side, but listen and empathize. Feel what they feel and understand why. If you have good reasons to believe what you believe, it will not weaken your opinions, but you will find they grow stronger. There is no danger in empathy and understanding.
There are many steps to the way a conversation can go between two people who disagree with each other. I have always loved to argue, but so much of my life has been wrapped up in winning. As I have grown older, many influences have changed the way I approach any sort of disagreement. Well, sure, I still lose it from time to time in an argument, but I try to live a little differently.
Harper Lee died last week, which reminds me of the debt I owe to the great words she wrote for Atticus Finch talking to his young daughter and narrator of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Scout.
“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-’ ‘Sir?’ ‘-until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
I may never get along with someone who refuses to play by the same rules that I try to, but I know that it is still worth trying. The fate of our democracy and our very citizenship relies on our ability to work with others, which may include someone who disagrees with us.
Do not let me make grand demands for you to change the way you live your life. I only ask that perhaps you take the time to consider how quickly other people will try to understand and respect your opinions when you grant them the same courtesy.
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