Talking Past the Words

As the political rhetoric and sound bites roll out of the news outlets and deadlock in Congress becomes common, I’ve had a growing concern about the polarization of our country. I used to watch or read in dismay as some leader or another ranted off buzz-words like family values or gay rights or even patriotism, using them to divide the factions in our country rather than unite them.  But I never realized I was part of it. Until last week.

I had a conversation with someone whose views were shaped by formative years in a setting quite different than my own liberal, somewhat ivory-tower background. It started with a statement along the lines of “gay rights isn’t about anything than them wanting money.” Normally, I wouldn’t engage someone on a nonsensical statement like that, considering the speaker to be too ignorant to be worth talking to. Or worse, he could be a dangerous lunatic.

But there were some pressing matters I was trying to avoid, so I dove into a conversation with this man instead, delving into the perceived basis for his statement, then questioning his views on seemingly unrelated topics. In the end, I planned to use these topics to destroy him with devastating logic. Except, something different happened. As I kept questioning, we moved past the buzz words.  We were suddenly talking about treating people in a similar manner, regardless of their race, gender or sexual preference. We were talking about the misuse of labels by those who wish to cast themselves as victims of real problems they have not encountered. We were talking about honesty, loyalty, trustworthiness and other traits that are more important than the demographic boxes we force people into.  In short, we got past the words, and we talked.

What I discovered was that our views and beliefs were fairly similar.  We had some differences, to be sure, but the biggest one was the words we chose to express our ideas – not the ideas themselves.  Had we not talked past the words, I never would have known that.  And it struck me: I am as much a part of the polarization problem as the news and politicians I chastise in my head. I routinely  discount or demonize someone who doesn’t use my words, before finding what his words mean. In this case, based solely on the words, I placed myself as having the white hat, and him the black.  I wore the halo and he held the pitchfork.  After all, I could not have anything in common with someone like that! But in fact, I do.

As an author, I write science fiction.  To me, a key feature of science fiction is the inclusion of big ideas played out in a milieu that allows them to be examined without the rhetoric. Yet, I have failed to apply that same concept to my own life.  I used words to create a gaping chasm where, in fact, only a thin crack existed. Mahatma Gandhi spoke the famous words, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  I guess I better start doing that.

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