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LICHTENSTEIN: Bridge ideological gaps through meaningful conversations

Civil conversations represent a key way to help citizens understand different worldviews

<p>We must learn to see our differences as a vital part of a better and more wholesome community.</p>

We must learn to see our differences as a vital part of a better and more wholesome community.

We have reduced each other to caricatures of the beliefs we hold. Our political discourse is characterized by a knee-jerk withdrawal from any semblance of opposition. We hermit with those who share our beliefs, fabricating a mentality that we cannot coexist with those who hold positions asymmetrical to our own. As we isolate ourselves from each other, we perceive strawman interpretations of opposing arguments, and then we pass these false narratives onto those around us until we claim to understand a belief that we clearly do not. This degradation of our pluralistic society into tribalism, where homogeneous groups refuse to interact with each other, prevents us from recognizing the quality we all share, regardless of belief — our humanity. If we forget our shared human nature, we will lose our ability to engage in any form of civil discourse. It is time to reach across these boundaries and engage constructively in conversations with those who hold viewpoints with which we disagree. By doing so, we will recognize that the differences we hold do not have to divide us. Instead, these differences can help our community grow — we must learn to see our differences as a vital part of a better and more wholesome community.

It is easy to withdraw from opposition. We feel more comfortable surrounded by those with whom we agree, and feel as though we can advance our agendas better when we avoid criticism and disagreement. We also feel stronger in our own beliefs when we are surrounded by those who share them, since the absence of opposition leads us to believe our values are right. Historically, withdrawal has been supported by individual communities. A vital aspect of onasticism, for example, is living in isolation from the outside world in order to reach the highest possible level of spirituality. Though physical isolation from opposing ideologies is not as present today, we still try to hide from different beliefs. Even in our interconnected world where we have access to each other’s opinions on virtually every hot-button issue, we choose to ignore anything with which we disagree. Instead of avoiding these opinions, we should strive to learn from them. Doing so will help us grow as individual people and as one community.

Engaging constructively with those who hold opposing beliefs does not mean abandoning a belief system for a communal, non-controversial position. In fact, that homogeneous position is the antithesis of the goal of having these conversations. Our objective should be the free exchange of ideas between parties. The pluralistic nature of a society that engenders that free exchange allows all members of the society to learn from each other without compromising their individual beliefs.

Having a conversation where all parties benefit may seem simple at face value, but it is a difficult task that can give rise to frustrations and misconceptions. In order for these conversations to be successful, both parties must be prepared to listen. A readiness to share your own opinion must be accompanied by an understanding that every belief is more complex than it initially seems. If we fail to recognize the intricacy of a different belief, we hurt our ability to learn from each other. When we make an effort to recognize the nuanced qualities of an opposing belief, we open ourselves up to the opportunity to understand the true nature of the belief. In addition, a starting point of mutual respect is vital to a successful conversation. Without that respect, neither party will listen to each other and both will leave more frustrated than when they began. By sitting down with the intention to listen and respect the other person’s position, you create an environment where people can learn from each other. Conversation is only the first step in the process towards eliminating tribalism. There will be more to accomplish, but we must first make an effort to understand each other if we want to eliminate the tribalism that has come to characterize our society.

We have a responsibility to learn from each other. We have divided our society into communities of one belief, and we have each come to believe ourselves as right, without any room for growth. It is now our responsibility to break out of that mentality, and the first step towards a better future is learning from each other. By understanding different belief systems, we show each other that the caricatures we perceive as the truth are mirages — every belief is more nuanced than we initially perceive it to be. We must make a concerted effort to recognize those nuances, first through conversation. By engaging constructively with others, we bring ourselves closer to a pluralistic society through which we can all benefit. 

Jake Lichtenstein is an Opinion columnist for the Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at