Discussing politics in public: On making meaningful dialogue with strangers

By: Michael Laws, Junior, Communications

I have a problem: often I will find myself in the middle of a conversation wondering how it got to where it is. Let’s call it Disconnected Ear Hyperphasia, or DEHPH (pronounced DEF) for short. Victims of DEHPH find it extremely hard to listen to others when talking about politics and have trouble keeping themselves from interrupting with thoughts of their own when things get heated. Perhaps, now it is starting to sound a bit more familiar for some readers.

DEHPH, while not actually a clinical disorder, does seem to be an epidemic in America. Many Americans struggle to properly hold a conversation and to maintain civility when the topic switches to politics. Because the disposition is so widespread, society has deemed it polite to keep everyday conversations from flowing into politics. While this strategy certainly has its appropriate times to be used, it has led to some unhealthy consequences. Ignorance of the fact that there are other valid political views besides one’s own is a major symptom prevalent throughout the American populace.

A worse symptom than this is the fact that many victims of DEHPH are actually aware of other perspectives, but are completely unable to comprehend them. Consequently, they lose all respect for those to whom the opinion belongs. The rampancy of this second symptom has impeded the ability of Americans to properly engage each other in meaningful dialogue and, I believe, has deeply wounded the effectiveness of our political system.

But how do we as a society begin to repair the damage that has been done? The best way to fight against illness is to attack the symptoms at their source. In the case of America, we need to begin by fostering the open communication of ideas in everyday, face-to-face conversation, even, and especially, in political ones.

Now this might seem vacuous. After all, it is much harder to be civil when one is also stressed, and the repeated discussion of politics is certainly likely to increase stress, no matter what kind of person you are. This is where listening comes in. Much of the stress of talking politics comes from not feeling heard. Being stuck in a one way conversation is not mutually enlightening, so it is very important to be aware of how we present ourselves to those we hope to connect to. It is absolutely essential to make an effort to listen more than to speak, for that is the only way to take in new perspectives and ideas to reconcile with one’s own.

Believe it or not, there used to be a time when Americans were not afraid to talk with the “stranger by the newsstand” about current policy. It did not matter that they did not know each other, and they were not afraid of having conflicting, even diametrically opposed, views because they were confident that they could respect and even learn from one another.

As modern society has progressed, this kind of conversation has become more rare. Slowly, over time, we have become too afraid of what others think of us and our views. We have lost the patience and respect necessary to carry a civil dialogue with our fellow man. We have stopped listening to one another. We have become DEHPH to all other views but our own.

It is time to reopen our ears. It is time relearn how to respect differences in opinion. It is time to separate how we view one another as human beings from how we view one another as voters. It is time we learned that who we are is so much more than simply which party we identify with. It is time we recognized the human dignity of the stranger next to us. We are so much more as Americans and as humans than our political system will ever reflect, but that does not mean we are allowed to stand on the sidelines and watch as it crumbles before our eyes. Perhaps, learning to respect one another’s differences is the first step in rebuilding what we have lost.

So I implore you: go out, have a conversation with someone today about what makes (or does not make) our country so great. You do not have to agree with them, just listen to them. Make an effort to connect with them because of your political differences. Having your viewpoints challenged will only help you to get rid of the ones not worth keeping and prevent you from taking for granted the ones worth keeping.
Best of luck and peace be to all those who endeavor to make our country a better place.