Having grown up with a mother who was a Democrat and a father who was a Republican, the tension in our home during the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates was palpable. I may have only been ten years old, but I remember it well. Years later, All in the Family characters “Meathead” (Rob Reiner) and his father-in-law, “Archie” (the late Carroll O’Connor), acted out these political conflicts in front of a national audience. After each episode, we were all left to wonder how the divides in our own families and nation could be overcome—and also wonder whether we’d simply be on opposite sides from then on.
The ’60s and ’70s were times of great change—we were awakening to the possibility of a better version of ourselves as individuals—and as a nation. As champions of social justice and equal rights, we had to consider both the common good and also the corruption in our democracy. Differences were sure to arise between factions—and they did. Fierce battles ensued between those who wished to maintain the status quo and those who wanted change. Perhaps it was just in our nature to see things differently as Republicans and Democrats, men and women, or members of different generations? And the opposing social and political forces seemed to pull us even farther apart. The visionary leaders who were capable of showing us the common ground on which to keep our families and nation together were nowhere in sight.
Fast-forward 50 years to the holiday season of 2017. After an age of relative complacency, the “Great Divide” has not only resurfaced in our nation, it is destroying many of our families. Asked what he’d be doing for Christmas, a friend told me, “We’re not getting together with family. Thanksgiving was a nightmare. Half of us think Trump’s the savior; the other half think he’s Satan.” And so, as we turn off our (favorite, carefully chosen) TV news networks, having had our fill of modern-day All in The Family skirmishes, let’s try to bid a caring good night to our loved ones this holiday season.
Our households, workplaces, neighborhoods, communities, and (un-united) states are as polarized today as they were when I marched on Washington in the late 1960s. The media appears to be thriving on reality-TV politics as families, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and even baristas working at Starbucks meticulously avoid small talk about politics, fearing they’ll open Pandora’s Box. Or, they dip their toes into piping-hot political waters, awakening the giant across the dinner table.
Whether we’re avoiding conflict behind a wall of silence or getting into a screaming match with our relatives, we risk becoming polarized, and even radicalized, even further. There is, thankfully, another option besides walking on eggshells or erecting walls between ourselves and those with whom we disagree. It’s called “keeping your cool and communicating.” Here’s how it works:
- Slow down, and set your intention to build bridges instead of walls.
- Find the common ground on which you can actually share your fears, hopes, and concerns.
- Discover ways to work together as Americans, citizens of “. . . one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all,” as stated in our nation’s Pledge of Allegiance.
- Stay calm, and communicate by listening—really listening—to what others are saying, and getting underneath the dogma/stories/blah-blah politics to the feelings they’re truly experiencing.
- Make a sincere effort to understand others’ fears, sorrows, losses, wounds, worries, and betrayals as well as their joys, hopes, dreams, values, and aspirations for their families and the nation as a whole.
- Express how you see things in a humble, respectful manner free of rigid, self-righteous proclamations, implying (or just plain stating) that you are right and they are wrong.
Listening and talking in these ways is a noble way to find common ground and help reunite America. Polarizing (that is, self-righteously placing yourself in the light while painting others as wrong) is easy. It’s our responsibility to build, not tear down, relationships with our partners, kids, families, co-workers, and fellow citizens. It may be in our nature to disagree, especially with respect to those things we feel most passionate about, but let’s resolve to do so in a way that makes us all better, smarter, safer, and stronger. Cultivating the civility that builds relationships may be a challenge in the heat of the moment when highly charged emotions are flooding the room, but we must resist them and move to higher ground. It is, after all, all in the family.