Perspective is an interesting thing. It was my first day of The Rhetoric of Mass Media in college. The professor asked the lecture hall how many people thought the news media was biased. Keep in mind, at this time we had three major networks and a relatively new CNN. Every hand in the room went up. Then he asked how many thought it was biased towards the right or towards the left. The room was split down the middle. He started the class this way every semester and every semester he got the same result.

The lesson: Bias is in the eye of the beholder.

An objective study of news stories at the time confirmed this theory. We are naturally drawn to viewpoints similar to ours and we are instinctively defensive towards counter viewpoints.

It may make us feel better to surround ourselves with like-minded people but at what cost? When we isolate ourselves in our safe corner of the world we run the risk of becoming myopic. We tend to put people into narrow, easily manageable boxes; to reduce them to predefined caricatures. We glorify the “us” and vilify the “them” and never consider, as is usually the case, that there may be more than those 2 options available. We equate disagreement with disrespect and we lose the ability to have an unguarded conversation.

“The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

Our marketplace of ideas is designed to encourage debate. When we come together and talk with (rather than at) each other we give ourselves the opportunity to learn something new; to find common ground; to explore new ideas beyond what either of us previously considered. At the end of this journey we may still believe in the same ideals we started with but the process of productive debate makes us richer and helps us better understand and appreciate the people in our community.

How do we change our state of debate? Let’s start with some ground rules.

  1. Meet people where they are. We are all on our own journey. We have our own background and experiences that have shaped how we think and feel. Each journey has its own twists and turns, triumphs and failures. The common thread is that, for each of us, our journey is our reality. It is where we live every day. When we meet people where they are we honor all journeys rather than trying to fit someone else into our shoes.
  2. Assume good intentions. There is truth to that old adage about assumptions. When we are in conflict it is easy to jump to conclusions about the other person. To define the entirety of their character by one opinion or action. Then they make assumptions based on our assumptions and soon the situation snowballs until the original dispute is all but lost in the chaos. The practice of assuming good intentions simply encourages us to slow down and investigate before jumping to conclusions. We start with a conversation instead of an accusation.
  3. Listen to understand. The pace of our conversation has increased dramatically. Texting, social media, 24/7 news. We have come to expect an immediate response all the time. The problem this creates is a tendency to respond too quickly. We start to craft our response before we have heard the full argument of the other side, and in doing so we often miss the actual point that was being made. Take some time. A slower paced conversation will not only avoid misunderstandings, it is more likely to keep emotions in check. When we feel that we have been heard we are more likely to listen to others.
  4. Agree to treat each other with dignity and respect. Our conversations have the capacity to remind us of our humanity. Unfortunately, when we look at politics, 24/7 news, and social media with all of its troll we see our public conversation taking an ugly turn. Ironically, all of this “connection” has isolated us into camps of us and them. Disagreement is not synonymous with disrespect. Entering our conversations with a foundation of dignity and respect goes a long way towards resolving differences.

Answers are found when we come together, not when we huddle in our ideological bunkers lobbing sound bite grenades. The first answer we usually discover is that we aren’t as different from each other as we had assumed.