Lips Together, Ears Apart

This morning, I booted up my computer and began perusing my Facebook feed. Before I’d had any coffee. Foolish, I know.

I happened upon a series of political posts which, because I am interested in politics and have a grim fascination with anything resembling a traffic accident, I read.

What I read was not surprising. Vicious, personal attacks. Verbal insults of the highest order. Unsubstantiated accusations. Supposed “facts” provided without reference or citation. “Facts” that were cited, but drawn from media outlets that are clearly biased or poorly researched. Passionate defensiveness. Angry rebuttals. Hurt feelings. Threats to unfriend. Execution of threatened unfriending.

It’s always been this way (even if the unfriending process has recently gone digital). Perhaps the conversations have been more heated of late, thanks to our current political climate, but the manner of discourse has always been roughly similar to what it is now. Certainly, the arrival and rise of social media has skewed the nature of that discourse, providing information, misinformation and a means to discuss it much more readily and easily than before, all the while granting the participants a veil of virtual anonymity and distance which serves to raise our weaponry and lower our shields.

But everywhere there is anger. Everywhere there is indignation. Now, if this anger and indignation somehow led to progress and widespread harmony, we might be permitted to overlook it. But that’s not the case. The stronger our passions become inflamed, the more petulantly self-righteous we become, the greater a wedge is driven between us. We are fighting and arguing each other to death.

I’m not a beatnik, or a peacenik, or a flower child. I’m not coming on here to advocate that we all turn those frowns upside-down—that all us Whos down in Whoville should suddenly join hands and start singing. I wouldn’t dare suggest that the richly complex and sometimes unfathomable issues we routinely debate are not deserving of impassioned response. I’m a passionate guy myself. I’ve been known to get involved in an immaturely conducted squabble on occasion. But in the last few years, since becoming more interested not just in the subject of politics, but in the prospect of turning things around and potentially even helping to stave off the decimation of our species—and yes, it’s beginning to seem that dire—I’ve come to see things in a new light.

I’ve spent a lot of time screaming at the world. I’ve written long, nasty posts and blog entries, decrying various perceived evils. I’ve engaged in intense, tear-inducing exchanges with loved ones, in which I comported myself with an air of arrogance and pride that I felt was justified by the fact that I held the superior position. I combated flimsy arguments with sarcasm. Why not? I’m very good at sarcasm. And it sure is fun to cut someone down or belittle their convictions with a cleverly worded bit of ridicule.

But something started to dawn on me. As wonderful as it made me feel to behave as if I was the only intelligent, witty and forthright human being within a 30-mile radius…it wasn’t accomplishing much. I hadn’t converted anyone to my way of thinking. And maybe even more importantly—I hadn’t opened myself up enough to reasonably consider anything that was being said to me. Even when I would sit there for a time, nodding my head and granting my opponent a few moments of considerate silence, I hadn’t really attempted to process the input in a fair and objective manner. Not when it didn’t closely resemble what I already recognized to be the be-all and end-all.

Every one of us has a unique set of experiences. Every one of those unique experiences informs and educates us in a superfluity of diverse and unexpected ways. But we tend to be more content, more comfortable with those whose experiences and resulting philosophies and worldview mirror our own. We get along with our neighbor because hey—he’s white like we are. He’s in a similar tax bracket. He goes to the same type of job, has the same type of family, will raise his children in roughly the same way. Zoom out a bit further, and we have less in common with someone living on the other side of town. We share some things—the weather, attendance at similar local functions, maybe their family structure still resembles our own—but they’re a different race, or their kids attend a lower class of school, or there’s a higher crime rate where they live. Zoom out further and now it’s someone living in an entirely different region of the country. The culture is barely recognizable. They talk funny. Have different religious beliefs. Haven’t been in the vicinity of a building over two stories tall in years. We wouldn’t even be able to carry on a polite conversation with them. Zoom out still further and now you’ve got someone in a foreign country who doesn’t speak the same language, doesn’t look like we look, doesn’t believe the things we believe, doesn’t act the way we act. We might as well be on a trip to the zoo.

The temptation to assume that we are correct in our way of thinking about every damn thing is high. A life full of personal experiences and interactions have persuaded us to believe that we’ve explored all avenues worth exploring, and have attained complete and total enlightenment. We are self-important, conceited creatures—it’s the way we’re wired. We simplify everything we can, reducing delicate and intricate issues into binaries of right and wrong, good and evil. And, almost without fail, we place ourselves on the good and honorable side of the dividing line.

We can’t all be right. While we know as much intuitively, it’s easier said than done to take a step back from our innate sense of certainty and concede that our opinions have not been stamped with the positive assurance of truth. They are malleable leanings at best. Some have less flexibility than others, obviously. But once we make the decision to open ourselves up, to allow ourselves the opportunity to be wrong, it’s incredible what can sometimes come of it.

With regularity, we hear people say that no good ever came out of a political discussion on Facebook. By and large, this is true. But it isn’t absolute. I know this, because I have participated in certain political discussions on Facebook where minds have been changed. I’m not suggesting I’ve borne witness to the conversion of a pro-lifer to a pro-choicer necessarily, but I have, through gracious, measured and judicious debate, been able on occasion to elicit an appreciable shift in another’s outlook or ideology. What’s more—others have managed to have the same effect on me.

What I’ve found is that, even when I continue to disagree with a given tenet or precept, I’ve been able to back up my own egotism enough to see where someone is coming from. Too often, I think, we’re afraid that to make such an admission is to agree, at least in part, with dogma we deem objectionable. It’s not true. It is merely a recognition of the fact that the accumulation of a different bank of knowledge, and a different set of life experiences, has caused another human being—with the same designs on justice, integrity and truth that we have—to arrive at an alternate conclusion.

For just a moment, let’s focus on the liberal left and the conservative right of the United States, as that’s a pretty clear, current example of a fierce opposition of ideas, values and beliefs. You might say—especially if you’re on one end of the spectrum and have ever had a conversation with someone on the other—that two more remotely different types of human beings cannot be imagined.

Just for a second…let’s take a look at what a majority of those aligned with both parties have in common. For now, don’t focus on the differences, of which there are plenty. Take a deep breath, and bear with me.

  • We all want our nation to prosper. We may not all want to go about it the same way, but if there was a magic switch that could be flipped that would grow our economy, provide jobs for everyone, improve our standing internationally, lift up small business owners, eliminate poverty, and financially reward the best and brightest among us for their contributions to society, every last one of us would flip it.
  • We all want our planet to be clean, beautiful and healthy. There are definitely discrepancies in terms of what shape it is actually in, who or what may be causing problems, and what, if anything, should be done to fix it. But we all live here. We all have loved ones we’d like to see live and thrive here for a long, long time. None of us wants it to go to pot.
  • We all value life. Maybe we don’t agree about what constitutes life, or about when certain actions dictate that a life’s value is lost. But—for the most part—we want people to live, to lead good, productive and healthy lives. It saddens all but the most heartless among us to see suffering in any form.
  • We all desire justice. We share a common desire to see that those who have done innocent individuals or our nation harm be brought to justice, though our ideas about what that means may vary. When we observe blatant and proven displays of injustice, we may become provoked to outrage. We will not always concur on what is right and what is wrong, but that there is a right and a wrong is a notion that eludes none of us.
  • We all want our children to be educated. The education of our youth leads to a prosperous future. It means more members of coming generations in steady employment, and fewer on the streets. It means less childhood poverty, and fewer childhood deaths. It means innovation and progress. It’s something every one of us can get behind.
  • We all want to be safe. For some, that means building our military. For others, that means wiping out any and all foreign threats. For others, it means promoting diplomacy and lessening the hatred some cultures feel for Americans. For still others, it might just mean knowing karate. But none of us wants to be at risk. No one wants that for our loved ones, or for our fellow countrymen, or for our fellow human beings.
  • We all want to become more technologically and scientifically advanced. We’re talking the discovery of cures for terminal diseases, better and more efficient tools, a better understanding of all that threatens us or our way of life. It means not falling behind other nations and weakening our global standing; it means surging forward and being at the forefront of technological progress.
  • We all want to be true to ourselves. When we stray from our path—whichever path we have chosen—we feel guilt. We instantly feel the pull to right our ship and continue to live a life we feel is in keeping with our individual beliefs and values. Even when that ship sinks, we are not blindly unaware of the failing.
  • We all grieve. When we suffer loss, we feel. We cry. We are moved. Some of us may maneuver it in different ways, but none of us is unaffected when something important changes or is taken away from us.
  • We all love. Define the word how you’d like, but as long as each of us feels anything worth rejoicing in, struggling with, or suffering for, we have not lost our capacity to love. I think that’s all of us.
  • We all breathe. White skin, brown skin, old, young, straight, gay, man parts, woman parts—we are all human beings. We are born, we learn, we change, we grow (hopefully), we love, we lose, and we die. We are all sharers of the human experience.

I won’t pretend it’s easy to look beneath the surface. When we hear someone championing ideas we interpret as ignorant, bigoted, close-minded, or downright hateful, our first instinct is not to try engaging that individual in polite, respectful conversation, if such a thing is even possible. But what’s the alternative? Respond to their anger with your anger? It might make you feel better to get something off your chest, but it’s not going to solve anything. Ignore them? That will probably remove some of the stress from your life, but once again, it’s not going to move us forward.

The other option is to surprise them, and maybe yourself as well. Ask them to explain to you how they arrived at their conclusions. Ask what contributed to them ruling out other possibilities. Ask them to discuss the issue with you calmly and patiently, and tell them you’re willing to listen. You’re under no obligation to change your mind in the slightest, and neither are they. But by removing hostility and judgment from that situation, there is at least the smallest sliver of hope that something will be accomplished. Someone’s mind may be shifted slightly in a more positive direction. And even if not…at least they will see that there might possibly be a more constructive way to demonstrate frustration or displeasure than by merely slinging insults or screaming bloody murder.

Let’s take, for example, the touchy subject of Donald Trump. I have seen countless friends—people with whom I align very closely on most matters—posting on Facebook that, if anyone they know plans to vote for Trump, they should unfriend them immediately, saving themselves the trouble. I understand this temptation. It would be nice not to have incendiary comments constantly popping up in one’s feed; statuses and memes that anger and depress us on a regular basis. But if we cut ourselves off from everything we disagree with, all we are doing is saving ourselves from a short-term headache. Meanwhile, the prospect of a long-term headache looms all the larger.

On the other hand, by creating a safe space for civil discourse, and by understanding a bit better what circumstances conspired to lead them astray (as you might justifiably believe), you might be able to plant seeds of doubt in their mind that their course is the correct one. You can connect with them on the forces driving them to their decision—anger at the establishment, the refreshing sound of someone who doesn’t talk like a politician, promises to keep our families safe from harm—and break each down in turn, perhaps explaining why their conclusion might be flawed, even if their intentions, fears and desires are fully understandable.

Of course, to commit to such an arrangement, you also have to be willing to leave yourself open to change. This doesn’t mean you need to consider voting for Trump. But maybe you’ve got him wrong. Maybe he isn’t as bad as the character you’ve cooked up inside your skull. Maybe. Even if you will never accept that he is a deserving candidate for the office of the presidency, it is possible you could be convinced that not all of his motives have a dark side. Keep in mind that we tend to sensationalize things in our minds, and take individuals who are merely unsavory and transform them into Emperor Palpatine.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Trump is a despicable human being and would be horrible for our country. But I’m willing to coolly debate that point without resorting to exasperated condemnation or censure, and to hear any arguments presented to me with as open a mind as I can muster.

Obviously, I have an easier time keeping a level head on some issues than others. If you want to try convincing me, for example, that homosexuality is a sin, and that all gays are Hell-bound…good luck. But if you engage me in a conversation on GMOs, I am more unsure, since I place enormous trust in scientists, and very little in corporations, and both are unfortunately involved. Not to mention that it’s a subject which I have studied in much less depth, and am therefore more willing to hear opposing opinions and consider any evidence provided. The trick, however, no matter how much give you might have on a particular issue, is to begin with as open a mind as possible, even if you have to lie to your own brain a bit to get you there.

When we do this, even if neither party budges an inch from their original position, we learn better how to talk to one another. We realize that the harsh language utilized in your run-of-the-mill internet comment section is pure venting, and worthless. And that if we translate that approach into similar attacks on people in real life, we are doomed to failure.

All right. So…why am I starting this website? The first reason is totally selfish. I want to learn. It feels a little late in the game to go back to college, so instead I have chosen to rely on the remarkable, collective bank of knowledge I have available to me. I have some insanely smart friends, and look forward to leeching off their brains as much as possible. But it’s not just those with master’s degrees I feel I can learn from. I’m hungry to hear as many different voices as possible. I have only lived one life, and I can never live another. But what I can do is learn about the experiences of other people whose background is unrecognizable in many ways from my own, and continually remind myself that the world is not as black-and-white as it often seems, and that the more we learn, the more there is to know.

In fact, the more I’ve experimented with approaching people in this way, a funny thing has happened. I’ve been happier. I’ve felt more positive about the way things are. I’ve had more faith in humankind. Might be hard to believe. But when you start becoming convinced that more problems arise from a lack of education or information than a lack of integrity—that people may be misguided but not truly evil—it is easier to see the good in the world, and to hold onto hope that a better future awaits us. If only we learn to handle the present properly.

The other reason I am starting this website is to be an advocate for major change. You can accuse me of dreaming too big—it won’t be the first time. My vision is that this site, and hopefully others like it, can vastly improve the way we speak to one another. That once we slow down, show some humility, and attempt to educate—both ourselves and others—rather than criticize or lecture, progress will be made. And if we can start to agree on some things—just imagine that!—maybe we can then stumble upon some truly innovative ideas, and subsequently act upon them, for the betterment of the human race.

Here is how this is going to work. About once a week, I will add a post, such as this one, on an issue. Whatever is grabbing me at the moment. I don’t want to place any restrictions on it, but most likely it will fall into one of the following categories: religion, education, politicians and the political process, civil and human rights, the environment, science and technology, animal rights, art and culture, business and economy, health and welfare, foreign policy, laws and crime, and philosophy.

Each post is intended to spark a conversation. You are welcome to be merely an observer, but I strongly encourage you to participate. If the things being argued matter to you, speak up. Take part in this journey, and I promise you won’t regret it.

I imagine that some topics will provoke lengthier and more in-depth debate than others. The plan is to let each conversation run its course before posting on a new subject.

There are some rules for discussion in the Dialogue forum. This must be a safe space, first and foremost, so aggression, animosity, slurs, insults, trivializing of opinions, etc. will not be allowed. Unless an offense is serious, you will most likely be warned. If destructive behavior continues, or if an offense is especially egregious, you will have your commenting privileges revoked. Learning to be civil in the face of seemingly outrageous propositions is not always easy. It’s a skill to be learned, and I’m still honing it myself. But an effort must be made, or you will not be permitted to comment in the future.

Second, a major theme of this project will be about sifting through the multitude of biased, distorted and falsified information propagated by the media, and refusing to let misinformation color our judgment. Easier said than done, I know. I’ll get into this in a later post, but perhaps my greatest frustration currently is with much of the media, and the terrific job they’ve done propagandizing and turning us all against each other. If we’re going to have success in this undertaking, we’re all going to have to accept that the bulk of the information and articles we see being posted regularly on Facebook is incredibly partisan and prejudiced, and cannot be trusted to give us an accurate picture of the truth. It’s going to mean being diligent in our vetting and research, and it’s going to require the supplementation of any suggestion of fact with links to supporting evidence—the more, and the more reliable, the better. It’s a pain to have to do the extra legwork, but unfortunately we can’t simply accept anything we see or read as being empirically true. It’s here that we routinely get ourselves into trouble.

It’s also important that we don’t go off on too many tangents. Please try to stay on topic, and not divert the course of a conversation simply to bring it around to something that you’d rather talk about. With as many contributors as I hope to have, that may be difficult, but unless we stay relatively focused, it’s just going to be a hundred voices hollering into the abyss.

Conversation is the first goal of Start the Evolution—the second is education. The idea is for all of us to learn more about the world around us. Even if we’re highly educated, even if we keep up on the news, even if we have a dozen NPR podcasts downloaded on our iPhone, there is a brand of education that cannot be equaled, and that is the process of speaking to others, and learning from the rich and diverse experiences of which we might otherwise be blissfully unaware.

In the interest of education, there are a few tools I’ve included on this website to aid us all in our quest to be knowledgeable and informed. First, a Library containing links to and reviews of books, articles, documentaries, websites—anything of value—that has been recommended by myself or any of you. If you’re familiar with a particular publication or title in the Library, you can up- or down-vote it, and submit a brief review to me via email, which I will then upload. This way, rather than having to wade through the mountains of potentially eye-opening educational material there is out there, we can narrow our focus to the very best of the bunch. Not that any of us should feel limited to the titles that eventually populate the Library, of course, but if, say, you only read five books a year, maybe this will give you a better idea of what those five books should be.

Second, there is a Glossary that already contains 1,700 terms and definitions. These are terms that are likely to come up in our talks, as well as in the viewing and reading material that will be recommended in the Library. It likely contains many words and phrases you’ve often come across and thought to yourself, “I should really look that up.” Well, now a great number of those terms are in the same place. And, as with the Library, if there are any changes, corrections, or additions you would like to suggest, you can email me and I’ll see that the Glossary is updated.

Finally, there is a section called “Bad Media,” where we will list and shame all outlets that are either regularly riddled with inaccuracies or else clearly one-sided or influenced by certain interests. In my opinion, we should avoid entirely any of these biased sources, not just because we may become misinformed, but also to send a message that we’re sick and tired of supposed news organizations and publications not holding themselves to high standards of fair reporting, with probity and integrity. Ideally, if enough of us were to finally take a stand and refuse to fill our brains with nonsense from these harmful sources any longer, they might gradually die out and give way to those intent on delivering a true and equitable version of the facts.

As we grow our minds, and begin to hear others in new and more receptive ways, the hope is that our newfound knowledge and passion will lead to ideas—ideas of real, practicable actions we might perform in order to make a difference. Whenever anything occurs to you—whether it might take the form of a social media campaign, a march, a potentially viral video containing chimps dressed as humans—anything at all that you think might do some good, email me your idea and I’ll add it to the Idea Box forum on the Dialogue page. From that point, the members of our little community can comment on it and discuss its viability. If it seems like an idea that might have legs, I’ll post a poll, and if the proposition receives at least 75% support, it will be approved.

From there, everyone willing and able to participate in our efforts to mobilize will be welcome. Obviously, there is never going to be any sort of obligation to do so, but if something has grabbed you—as it will have necessarily grabbed at least three-quarters of us—I hope that you will…put your feet where your mouth is.

So that’s the idea. Conversation…Education…Inspiration…Action. Transforming our thirst for knowledge and desire to speak productively to one another into real change. I hope this doesn’t sound like a pipedream to you. Real change happens every day. We don’t need to put a stop to all terrorism or eradicate poverty worldwide in order for our efforts to be worthwhile. All we have to do is collectively move the needle in the positive direction.

Your voice is important. Whether you feel you have much to offer the rest of us is not the point. The very fact that you come to the table with a set of experiences unique to you and unfamiliar to the rest of us makes your thoughts and opinions count. That said, it will be our goal as a community with a common purpose to self-educate. The brighter and more well-rounded we are, the better equipped we will be to address the problems facing us, our loved ones, and future generations, if they should be lucky enough to exist.

So join us in conversation. Come with preconceived notions and beliefs, and argue your points with passion. But remain open. Continually remind yourself that practically everyone you meet is fiercely confident that they are on the right side of things, and that they know better than everyone else. The intense desire to believe in our own superiority is a product of our makeup. It takes strength, wisdom and courage to accept that we don’t know everything—that we might have been misled somewhere along the path to our current set of convictions.

I, for one, am willing to listen, and to learn, as much as I am to debate and educate. Because screaming at the world, while it may be great for releasing tension, doesn’t get a hell of a lot done. I’m ready to bring it down a few decibels, and hear what the world has to say.

I hope you’ll join me.