In the months leading up to and during this first year after the 2016 elections, I have felt a strange kinship with Bob Dylan’s clueless Mr. Jones.
You probably remember:
“Something is happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”
As the political winds have riffled the pages of our 2017 calendars, Mr. Jones’ unease remains with us. The cause of that anxiety is not good.
What’s “happening here” is not nurturing what my Republican father and the fathers of my schoolmates called “the great American experiment in democracy” – an experiment whose principles have successfully guided our nation for nearly 250 years.
I suspect I’m sharing a collective angst about the direction our democracy is headed and the troubling events affecting America.
Political scientists carefully study actions negatively impacting healthy democracy and have identified trigger points that provide insights important to our collective conversation.
Dr. Anna Grysmal-Busse of Stanford University is quoted as saying that her particular concerns are activities that undermine “the informal norms” essential to the operation of a government.
She refers to what she calls “a standard authoritarian populist template” employed to weaken democracy. Others have identified similar triggers.
Paraphrasing a few:
Efforts to demonize and weaken a free press, which is an essential element of democracy.Efforts to diminish or trivialize judicial institutions.Filling governmental institutions, including judicial, with unqualified appointees who espouse harmful views.Demonizing political opponents and others who are seen as blocking authoritarian ambitions.Nurturing xenophobic fears and extreme nationalism such as closing borders and demonizing foreigners. These actions combine to exacerbate divisiveness throughout a nation.
So, Mr. Jones, knowing the “triggers” provides us with a clearer idea of what is going on here. Many have grave concerns for that “great experiment in democracy.”
Our inability to communicate civilly with each other is a major roadblock to resolving national problems. It may sound naïve to believe that individual civility could have an effect that far-reaching, unless we take into consideration the “butterfly effect.”
So disregarding civility, we just go on engaging in minor kerfuffles with our neighbors, demonstrating the superiority of our positions over theirs and walk away, both of us, frustrated and unsatisfied.
Steven Pinker touched on the difficulty of talking civilly with each other – especially about politics. His seminal study, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” explores issues that block our ability to communicate. Principal among them is our susceptibility to illusions and fallacies. He writes:
One ought to “seek good reasons” for believing something, noting that: ‘Faith, revelation, tradition, dogma, authority, the ecstatic glow of subjective certainty – all are recipes for error ...”
It’s difficult for a dialogue to be meaningful if each participant believes himself or herself to be absolutely infallible. We must listen to other voices carefully and analyze them before shrugging them off simply because their views don’t fit our fixed beliefs.
Where did we veer from a path that reveres our national motto: e pluribus unum? Out of many one. We have differences on issues, but even in confusing and combative times, we remain united by common principles.
Dr. Buie Seawell, Denver University professor of ethics, reminded an audience of an American election, during another highly combative and contentious period in American history. He drew from the presidential inaugural address of Thomas Jefferson in 1801:
“ ... every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle.”
Civility and candor can still be colleagues.
On a recent TED Radio Hour talk, Celeste Headlee said the most important ingredient in understanding others is to develop our skills at listening. Her book We Need to Talk lists some of the pitfalls such as “multi-tasking.” Be in the moment. Listen without judging, reflecting Pinker’s “glow of subjective certainty.”
Civil dialogue is important in narrowing the gaps that separate us. There are going to be differences. It would be a dull world otherwise. Jefferson again:
“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy as a cause for withdrawing from a friend.”
It is more important to “pay attention.” In one of Mary Oliver’s poems there is a final line, which addresses the importance of paying attention. She writes:
“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”
The minister of our Unitarian-Universalist church reminded us recently that one of our popular rappers says it well, when he tells us we should wake up, “and stay woke.”
Ralph Blanchard is a retired naval officer living in Durango with his family since 2000. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.