“What may appear as the truth to one person will often appear as untruth to another person. But that need not worry the seeker. Where there is honest effort, it will be realized that what appeared to be different truths are like the countless and apparently different leaves of the same tree.” Mahatma K. Gandhi
America has always been full of folks with divergent viewpoints. Over the last years, however, we have lost one of the vital concepts that allowed us to make peace and move forward together: the art of respectful debate and compromise.
Much has been made about our politicians’ inability to compromise. People are frustrated by their rigid stances and refusal to engage in give and take. It is not just the politicians, however, who engage in this behavior. All of us could benefit from a refresher course on cooperation. Perhaps it’s our increasing reliance on social media, but people seem less accepting of viewpoints other than their own. Rather than engage in a healthy conversation to explore differences, it’s much easier to avoid those discussions or worse yet, use technology to anonymously hurl insults at each other. I think many Americans are disheartened by this behavior and recognize it contributes to our seeming inability to forge a united path. How do we begin to overcome our vast differences and find a way to bridge the divide? A good start would be to remember how to talk to one another. For that, we can borrow some concepts from the mediation process.
People generally come to mediation hoping for a resolution. While most sessions begin with each party trying to shift the other party’s position, they often end with a compromise that instead acknowledges both standpoints. Why does this happen in mediation? Because mediators recognize that face to face conversation humanizes positions. While it’s easy to vehemently disagree with someone’s viewpoint on paper, it’s a lot harder to do when that person is across the table from you. Mediators model good communication skills. They foster an environment where people can listen to one another and explore common ground. Mediators ask people to respect one another’s perspectives.
As a society, we aren’t using many of these skills. Without them, compromise is impossible. Perhaps we should heed the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” Respectful discourse means acknowledging that everyone has the right to his/her opinion instead of rudely dismissing it because it is different from our own. It means listening instead of yelling louder than the other person (yelling does not guarantee the other person will actually hear you). It means putting down our swords and picking up our compassion.
I recently ran across an article that captured these concepts beautifully. It was about a young man named Derek Black. Derek is the son of Don Black, a former KKK grand wizard who is deeply involved in the white nationalist movement. Derek is also the godson of David Duke. As you can imagine, Derek’s upbringing was steeped in white supremacist rhetoric. As a teen, Derek even designed a white supremacist website for children. As he went off to college, Derek showed every sign of ascending to leadership in the white nationalist movement, although he kept his views a secret from his fellow students. But then something happened; Derek was “outed” by another student. Most of the student body shunned him. One student named Matthew Stevenson, the only Orthodox Jew at the small college they attended, chose not to ostracize Derek. Instead, Matthew invited Derek to his weekly Shabbat dinner, which always included open-minded guests from many backgrounds: Christian, atheist, African American and Hispanic. Derek began to regularly attend these dinners and engage in conversations about race and ideology. These conversations, in combination with his studies of history and civilization, changed his entire outlook. In July 2013, Derek publicly renounced white nationalism and apologized for his past racist activities, writing, “I can’t support a movement that tells me I can’t be a friend to whomever I wish or that other people’s races require me to think of them in a certain way or be suspicious at their advancements.” In other words, Derek decided to embrace tolerance.
Derek and Matthew’s story is a wonderful example of the power of conversation. In the beginning, Derek could not have agreed with what he heard at the Shabbat dinners, but he listened anyway. Equally important, Matthew must have found Derek’s views very disturbing. Nevertheless, he included him in the dinner discussions. And these discussions led Derek to radically change his core values and belief system. He chose a life of inclusivity and acceptance over one of exclusion and hate.
Mediators often facilitate powerful dialogues where perspectives shift and participants become open to new ideas. Sometimes, these conversations change the way people think forever. If all of us could practice honoring each other’s viewpoints and treat everyone with dignity on a daily basis, we could help shift the current climate of intolerance to one of acceptance, paving the way for compromise. Stories like that of Derek and Matthew should give us hope and inspire us to listen to others even when their views are radically different than ours. Healing our country needs to start not just with politicians, but with all of us. Open, honest and respectful conversations and a willingness to compromise are what will help propel us forward as a united, rather than divided, country.