Part 3. I'm trying to lay out some basic ideas about how to listen and speak in civic conversations about issues that polarize Americans and Canadians. I don't want to tackle the issues directly, but to see if there is some basic way that we might speak with each other to find a path forward in contentious areas.
So far I have argued that many of our differences come from the assumptions about life with which we approach the discussion. Some people say that only secular assumptions are permissible, but I have argued that people who are religious and those who say they are non-religious both argue from their own fundamental framework. Honesty suggests that we state what we believe up front, and courtesy suggests that we listen respectfully to those with whom we disagree. But are honesty and courtesy enough? Thus part 3.
In the present situation, when someone makes their case we tend to listen only long enough to discover whether he/she is supporting our beliefs. The comments that appear under news stories online show how little anyone is listening -- respectfully or otherwise. Is there an alternative?
I suggest that we listen with at least one purpose and on the basis of at least one assumption. 1) We assume that the other intends something good. When Republicans look for ways to cut the budget, we do not assume that their intention is to hurt poor people. When Democrats look for ways to help the unemployed, we do not assume that their intention is to hurt the wealthy. When those who call themselves pro-life oppose abortion on demand, we do not assume that their intention is to control women. When those who call themselves pro-choice support abortion on demand, we do not assume that their intention is to kill babies.
2) Our purpose? To discover what the other's best intentions are. We do not need to agree. We may hold that their actions will contradict their intentions. But our first step is to hear the other clearly.
Of course, when we engage in these conversations we want to convince other people that we are right. Does this approach mean that we just talk at each other and take notes to pass a test later? Can we still argue and debate and seek to persuade?
Of course we can. Indeed, we should. But it does mean that we argue civilly; we present our case respectfully; we recognize that we can be wrong; we seek to learn as well as to convince.
Perhaps we could take one simple step. Whenever a politician or other public figure presents their case, we can ask him/her: "Are you willing to compromise?" If they say, "No. I will stand on principle," we can let them know we will not support them. Those whose principles lead them to be inflexible and unable to listen cannot lead a country comprised of different and disagreeing groups of people.