We Americans need a new way of being. I’m not sure I know what that is but I’ve come to this conclusion because I don’t like who we are becoming.
I don’t like our divisiveness. I don’t like our shouting, our name-calling or our hate-filled rants.
We behave as if every issue is an either-or proposition. We speak as if there are only two options, just two choices we can pick. It’s either black or white. We act as if you are either for us or you are against us. We turn anyone who disagrees into the other, the outcast, the enemy. They are to be labeled, shunned, and disparaged.
We call them uninformed, intolerant, snowflake, deplorable. We discount whatever they say or do. Yet our group is righteous. We take a stand. We pick sides.
You are pro-Second Amendment or you want every gun confiscated. You are for a border wall or you are for unrestricted immigration. You are an ultra-conservative or a leftist-liberal.
The issues facing us are just not that simple. They are complex and dynamic. If they were easy and unchanging they would have been solved long ago. Life is not bimodal. Life is more complicated than either-or.
“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong,” said H.L. Mencken, a noted cultural observer of the first half of the 20th century. Mencken’s wisdom rings true today. It calls us to search beyond the simple answers, bullet points and memes. It calls us to understand the underlying factors, patterns and structures that create and sustain our issues. It calls for us to be open to possibilities that can change the causal dynamics at a fundamental level.
We have to suspend judgement while we devise workable solutions to the complex issues we face. To do this we must get beyond the shouting, name-calling and self-righteousness. We need to move from a mindset of either-or to yes-and. Or at least to a mindset that can consider the possibly of maybe.
We also need a new way to speak. A way to have real conversations to address our complex issues. Not one-way broadcasts but true dialogue. It needs to be thoughtful, slow, respectful. We need interactions that honor the other person instead of vilifying them.
Maybe we also need is a new way to listen. To actively listen. A way to not automatically turn off the moment someone says something with which we may disagree. A way to listen where we are not composing our response while the other speaks. A way we can listen with the expectation to be influenced.
To speak and listen differently and to make real progress on the issues we face, we need to be something different. I’m not sure exactly what it is we need to be, but I think it includes few obvious things. Like being open, honest and respectful.
I think it also includes a willingness to change, an acceptance of differences and a dose of humility. I think it includes a curiosity about others and their viewpoints. An interest in why others think the way they do. A drive to understand who others are. And a willingness to seek out information sources that do not simply echo the beliefs we already have.
What do you think? Who do we Americans need to be? I’m listening.
David Womack is senior vice president and area manager for Kaiser Permanente in Kern County and board chairman of the Kegley Institute of Ethics at CSU Bakersfield. The opinions expressed are his own.