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Crossing the Partisan Divide: How to Transform Polarized Conversations into Evolutionary Opportunities

by | Oct 30, 2020 | 0 comments

Question:

When engaging with friends and relatives with strongly conservative views about politics, spirituality, and religion, I find it quite difficult to maintain the conversation because there seems to be no common ground upon which to build consensus. I find it hard to maintain an open mind with any kind of integrity because their beliefs often seem so far from reality.  A part of me thinks it’s better to keep things more superficial, but that seems like a cop-out.  What would your advice be on how to engage the very conservative people I encounter from the perspective of the evolutionary impulse?

Answer:

This is a great question, and one that I think a lot of us can relate to right now. I know I can. 

There are several really interesting dimensions to the question that are connected to letting go of the position of “already knowing,” which is one of the most important orientations of cultivating a more enlightened relationship to life and to the mind. 

First off, it sounds like the approach you’re taking is probably a good way to go. When you encounter fundamentalist thinking, it’s generally a good idea to listen and then gently challenge ideas that don’t seem in alignment with reality. But that’s about as far as you can take it if the other person is unwilling to budge at all from their view point. You can’t really have a conversation without some common ground upon which to build a shared understanding. 

But I want to push this a little deeper, and explore the nature of fundamentalist thinking. It sounds as though you are a progressive, liberal person and those you’re having trouble speaking with are more conservative. Those of us on the liberal side of the spectrum tend to view fundamentalism as a uniquely conservative issue. And there’s some validity to that. When we think of the most extreme and dangerous forms of fundamentalism in our world, we tend to think of those with deeply held traditional conservative religious views. 

But fundamentalist thinking isn’t unique to conservatives. It’s a rigid orientation that anyone can take to their perspectives and opinions and beliefs, regardless of their political orientation. It’s just more obvious in those we don’t agree with. There are plenty of examples of people who adhere to their “progressive” or “liberal” worldview in a way that’s also rigid and fundamentalist. 

What makes these kinds of partisan political conversations so difficult isn’t that we’re encountering a different set of beliefs.  These conversations become difficult when one or both parties have a rigid, unquestioned adherence to their beliefs. It’s an unwillingness to question one’s fundamental assumptions. It’s a dogmatic acceptance of everything that comes along with your worldview, regardless of any information that might poke holes in it or suggest valid criticisms or gaps. It’s a position of “this is the truth, it’s the only truth; everybody else is wrong.”   

Again, none of us are exempt from that orientation. We can all be fundamentalist in our own worldview, no matter how progressive it is. Just take a look at your own political beliefs and you’ll find at least some pockets of fundamentalism. I’m sure there are issues where you simply “take the party line.” We can’t all be perfectly informed on every issue, so sometimes it’s just easier to take the general view that your political party does.

So this, I think, is the first step in being able to navigate these kinds of conversations. You need to understand the nature of fundamentalist thinking, and realize that when you feel like you can’t get anywhere with people, it’s not necessarily because they hold a different point of view. It’s more the result of how strongly they’re holding their view.  

And in making this distinction, you want to be aware of any fundamentalist shades in your own view. Are there any ways in which you are unwilling to question your own conclusions? Are you open and willing to take on their opposing viewpoint in order to find some common ground? 

You want to come into any situation like this focused primarily on wanting to know the truth. You don’t want to rigidly hold onto your ideas because any rigidity in your belief structure will get in the way of you knowing the truth. You can have your opinions and stand for what you’ve discovered in your life, but we need to always be interested in learning more. 

But what happens if we take this open position and are still met with rigid fundamentalism? What if, in spite of our genuine willingness to entertain the views of others, they’re still unable to do the same for us? 

At this point, there’s not much more you can do honestly. When you’ve done your best to make it clear that you’re willing to listen to them and they still just keep spouting the same talking points, you’re not really going to get anywhere with them. There’s just no shared basis for a deepened inquiry. They don’t really want to engage with you. They only want to convince you of their point of view. 

So, at that point, you might consider changing the subject to something less polarizing. That’s probably what I would do if I wanted to continue to have a positive, friendly relationship with this person.. 

But, there are a couple of other things you can try. First off, you can play the long game. Let’s say, for example, that you have this fundamentalist relative and you talk every so often at family gatherings or holidays, and your conversations generally follow a similar, frustrating pattern. You can think of each of these little encounters as like chipping away at a rock wall. Each time you talk, you test the waters just to see if they’ve opened up at all. You can see if they’ve moved at all from their rigid position. They’re human after all, and all of us are in a kind of developmental process, however slowly we might be moving at any particular time. 

So you can just poke them gently each time you see them and just see if there’s any new flexibility. If you hit that same rigid wall, no problem.  Just move on. There’s no point in wasting your precious life energy. You can check in with them again in a year or two and see if anything’s moved. 

There’s a second approach you can use to find a way to connect with people who hold this fundamental kind of worldview. And this is a good option for the people in your life that you want to make sure you maintain strong relationships with, even if you can’t see eye-to-eye politically. You can find some area of life where you do share common ground and focus on that. Then you can use this shared interest to open up trust between you. 

We’re all human after all, and it’s usually possible to find some dimension of our life experience where we are aligned. If it’s someone from your family, maybe you can talk about your shared family history. You can talk about your genealogy or ancestry and how important that is to both of you. 

Try to find something that is important to both of you. Keep it simple and friendly and see how that grows. You might find that your connection with that person begins to grow. You both start to see each other not as members of opposing political or cultural factions, and more as fellow human beings. There’s a kind of simple humanity beneath all the rigid ideas that you can connect on.

Believe it or not, you might even find that sometimes you can establish a spiritual connection with them. Perhaps they hold very strong spiritual values, even if they’re resting on a very rigid traditional belief structure, and you can find common ground with them on that front.  There’s a way to talk about your spiritual convictions without getting into the belief structure itself. For example, you might both value things like having a moral compass or the importance of self-sacrifice for a greater good. If you’re able to be patient and curious, you can find your way down into the healthy values that they hold behind the rigid worldview. 

If you can do this, they might begin to trust you more. Maybe they’ll stop thinking of you as a left-wing nutjob and see that you’re actually a very ethical and sincere person. And you might discover the same about them. As this trust grows, their defensiveness about political views might start to soften a little bit. You will be an example to them of a good person who holds views that they usually demonize; and vice versa. They’ll see that you’re a moral person who really cares about truth and doing the right thing.  And even though they don’t agree with your politics, at least they’ll start to respect you and your intentions.

A friend of mine, Michael Dowd, has a very powerful story about how this happened to him. Michael is a fundamentalist preacher turned “evolutionary evangelist” who wrote a great book called Thank God for Evolution. Early in his life, he was a hardcore Christian fundamentalist who saw the world in very black-and-white, heaven-and-hell terms. But at some point along the way he was introduced to a Buddhist person who was so impressive that it began to crack open his rigid worldview. This person was such a great example of all the positive qualities that he strived to embody in his own life that he began to see them as a more authentic expression of Christ’s teachings than any of the Christian fundamentalist role models in his life. This caused him to question his own assumptions about his way being the only way that had been such a big part of his fundamentalist upbringing.  

This is something all of us can be for the people in our lives. If we’re shining examples of the good and the true and the beautiful, then we might show others who share some of those essential values but don’t agree politically that there might be more to the picture. Through our example, we can help to undermine assumptions and loosen up rigid worldviews. 

Of course, this won’t happen at every contentious Thanksgiving dinner with every fundamentalist cousin, but it’s a much more wholesome approach than just getting into a political argument. 

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