Pro-dialogue

Posted August 28

This post isn't about our work against human trafficking - it's more important than that, and it affects us all, so please take a moment to read it through. 

We're living in a deeply divided world. 

Politically, I identify as a liberal, as do most of my friends. We liberals are currently positioning ourselves as the bastions of logic and reason in a world gone mad. We seem to be waiting for everyone else to wake up from their collective madness, so that all will be well with the world again. 

But does that position actually make any sense at all? What are we actually achieving? 

We spend so much of our time and energy focused on Donald Trump and his behaviour, when there's extremely little - if anything - we can do to change it. The result is that we, as individuals, only succeed in making ourselves feel righteous, helpless, and upset. We harden our stances, which only takes us further from solving the real issues at hand. 

What are the real issues at hand? I see three core issues affecting the Western political world today: 

1. Unstable, increasingly polarised societies. 

2. A huge proportion of non-voters who are unwilling to get involved. 

3. Potential foreign interference in the internal workings of the US political system.

Trump is more than just a man. He's the figurehead for a large segment of society who feel they have no other representation. Whatever the rationale behind those feelings, the feelings themselves are legitimate and need to be treated as such, not merely dismissed as "wrong". 

Even if Trump were to be removed, that segment of society would remain, and the problem would remain unsolved. 

I was speaking recently with a highly intelligent, very well-informed relative, who has tried hard and simply cannot comprehend the logic of conservative voters. Without realising it, he's put his finger on the problem right there: it's not necessarily a matter of logic. It's something far deeper than that. 

The best explanation I can find is an analogy. 

Galileo Galilei was a Italian scientist, now credited as the father of modern science. Galileo lived at a time when the Earth was believed to stand at the centre of the universe, and mankind at the pinnacle of all creation. Galileo, with his logical observations of the real world, challenged this conception. The Catholic Church, representing the dominant belief system of the age, denounced Galileo as a heretic, and he spent the rest of his life under house arrest. 

With the benefit of our current knowledge and education, we can now say that Galileo's observations were correct. 

In a way, however, the Catholic Church was also correct. Galileo's world was a Catholic one. In fact, Galileo himself was a devout Catholic - but his research carried implications that would have caused unimaginable social, political, and spiritual upheavals to the Catholic world. Those upheavals have since taken place, but in a more gradual way. 

In Galileo's day, the world simply wasn't ready for the idea that mankind, rather than being the centre of all creation, inhabited a small and otherwise insignificant rock in the backwaters of the universe. Many of us struggle with that concept even today, four hundred years later. 

If you and I had been born in Galileo's time, it's unlikely we would have supported his theories, regardless of the logic behind them. Those theories would have challenged our very conception of our reality. We would have responded on an emotional, rather than logical, level. In all probability, we would have opposed those theories vehemently - even violently - and would have seen ourselves as unquestionably right in doing so. 

Now imagine you're a white male born in post-war America. You've been raised in a nation that leads the world, both politically and economically, and you stand at the peak of its social hierarchy. Then things begin to change. Political power begins to shift - to Europe, Russia, and China. Jobs are lost to Asia. Your sense of personal pride depends on being able to provide a home and a stable life for your family - but that's not so simple anymore. 

Today, society has become far more complex. Minority groups have gained more recognition and power. Immigrants of all colours, nationalities and beliefs have become increasingly visible. The gay rights movement has come forward with increasingly confusing acronyms like LGBTIQ. People have begun inventing an increasingly complex array of genders, and "men" have begun demanding the right to use women's bathrooms. There has been an African-American in the White House, with a woman lining up to take his place. 

The future, as ever, is uncertain. Some people are campaigning for these changes, believing them to be right. Others are willing and able to adapt to these changes. Some, however, can't or won't change. They don't know how to adapt these changes into their world view, and all they want is for everything to go back the way it was. 

From a liberal point of view, many of these social changes are both correct and necessary - but some people simply aren't willing or able to change so radically in such a short period of time. These people feel ignored, and forced into social roles they no longer recognise. Perhaps they're angry, or afraid. 

What we liberals don't seem to realise is this: it's perfectly legitimate for people to feel that way. In their position, we would feel the same way. These people have found a political figurehead that promises them a return to the comfort and stability of the world that has been taken from them, and a sense of self-worth that modern society denies them. It's only natural that they would support him, and passionately so. 

By belittling these people and making them feel as though their opinions are invalid, we liberals are failing to recognise the root cause of the issue - and, in fact, are only making it worse. We are the ones deepening the rift in society, with our blind assertions that the only logical and legitimate way forward is our own way, and with our persistent refusal to acknowledge alternate points of view. 

And so we find society polarised between two groups who feel angry, hurt, and resentful towards each other. Rather than attempting any true dialogue or any deeper understanding between those groups, we continue to antagonise each other, and make the problem worse. 

Social media gives each of us a self-reinforcing bubble, where each of us sees the world we want to see. We strengthen our positions and stoke our anger amongst our groups of like-minded friends, until we can no longer imagine how anyone could possibly hold any opposing point of view. We start to believe that anyone who doesn't share our own opinions is essentially an idiot, and unworthy of our time. 

But this is not a solution, and these bubbles we've created bear no relation to reality. This is not how a democracy functions. To believe in democracy is to believe in dialogue, particularly with people of opposing points of view. 

The majority of my friends on social media, as in real life, are liberals. Several months ago, because of a shared interest in fighting human trafficking, I connected with a friend of a friend on Facebook. I soon realised that his political views were the polar opposite of my own - and he would voice them regularly, often commenting on my political posts. 

To be perfectly honest, my first reaction was shock and disgust, and I briefly considered removing him from my contacts - but his comments were thoughtful, and respectfully written. I began to admire his courage in engaging myself and my liberal friends in debate, even when he was clearly outnumbered. Our debates remain civil and respectful, with both sides taking the time to listen to opposing opinions. That, to me, is the very essence of democracy. 

This stranger was giving me something I didn't have - an insightful personal perspective from the opposite side of the political fence. In the self-reinforcing world of social media, I found his ideas refreshing. They expanded, rather than narrowing, my own perspective. I could see the validity of his feelings, if not his arguments. He helped me see that some of my own arguments weren't as watertight as I imagined, and that the issues involved are often more complex than I realised. 

As I see it now, the most important thing is not whether or not you're pro-Trump. It's whether or not you're pro-dialogue. If you're not willing to listen respectfully to people who hold opposing points of view, then you're only making the situation worse, and are ultimately undermining the democratic system. 

Yes, the logic of our current political situation needs to be recognised - but so do people's feelings. Right now, they are perhaps the most neglected part of the equation, and the one that needs most desperately to be solved. People have turned to Trump because nobody else has been willing to listen to them, and to recognise their feelings as valid. We need to change that, and to remove the need for divisive political figures like Trump. 

The onus of responsibility here is in on the liberals. After all, we are the ones seeking change. It's time to stop acting victimised, to get beyond the fact of Trump's presidency, and start recognising the very real and legitimate reasons why he continues to receive so much support. 

If we claim our political systems are flawed, but make no other effort to heal the deep and widening rifts within our societies, then we have only ourselves to blame for whatever the future may hold. 

I was speaking recently with another friend who doesn't follow politics at all, and has no interest in doing so. While she can see that politics affect us all as individuals, she doesn't believe that we as individuals can affect politics. From her point of view, getting involved makes little difference, other than making people feel helpless and upset. 

Her point of view is also perfectly valid. In the West, we've been very fortunate in that our generation has never experienced a major war or depression. While none of us can say for certain whether that will continue, we as individuals do seem to have little effect on matters of international importance. 

Yet our society is made of nothing but individuals, and we're now familiar with the concept of ideas and behaviours spreading virally through society. Whether we realise it or not, whether by action or inaction, each of us can - and does - make a very real difference upon this world. 

It has been said, and quite rightly, that the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election was determined not by the conservatives, but by the non-voters. A huge proportion of people are unwilling to get involved in politics - and I can understand why. Not only do they have a sense of political helplessness, but the political landscape has become a battleground, with people on both sides passionately invested in often obscure issues that might make little or no sense to the outsider. 

To the outsider, it must all seem like senseless violence - like stepping into the middle of a drunken brawl. 

Instead of making it easy for people to enter that space, we make it a confusing place full of jargon and assumed knowledge. Liberals, in particular, often conduct themselves with a sense of moral and intellectual superiority, which harms their cause more than they may realise. I personally shied away from politics for many years because I found it incomprehensible, and lacking an easy entry point. 

Several democratic countries, including Australia, have a system of compulsory voting. Anyone who fails to vote in an election receives a fine. This system gives people an incentive to become more involved in the political processes that shape their daily lives, and I support it. Ultimately, however, it's not the solution. 

By initiating a respectful, meaningful dialogue between ordinary people of all points of view, we provide a safe space for newcomers to enter the conversation, have their voices heard, and feel part of something greater than themselves. This concept stands at the very core of the democratic system. 

Right now, in America and around the world, that democratic system is failing. Politics has become a dirty, short-sighted game, corrupted by a relatively small group of wealthy powermongers. Politicians' egos have become prioritised over the well-being of the societies they exist to serve. Voters have become fixated on names, rather than ideas. Our own elected representatives are failing to participate in the respectful, meaningful dialogue that is so desperately needed. 

Only when a society stands together can it hope to protect itself against the interference of aggressive foreign powers. America today is not the great nation it once was, and American politics affect the state of the world in more profound ways than many Americans may realise. Many of us - whether liberal and conservative, Americans or otherwise - would like to see America return to the strength and stability of the past: but hatred and division is not the solution. 

It's up to us, as individuals, to step back from this senseless partisan hate and build stronger communities by engaging in genuine dialogue with each other about the issues that affect us all. It's time to stop blaming the politicians, and start taking responsibility for the well-being of our own societies. 

- Ben 

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