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When it comes to politics, listen first in 2018

When it comes to politics, listen first in 2018
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The past year was a tough one for conversations.

Following a deeply polarizing presidential election, in 2017 we’ve experienced a year of serial controversy, often hinging on identity fault lines.

Among other flashpoints, we saw marches escalate to murder in Charlottesville as enduring elements of hate and darkness were thrust into August light. A healthy and vibrant society cannot survive amidst such attacks on the humanity of our fellow Americans. It feels like divisions are deepening and rancor is rising with no relief in sight.

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According to the latest Civility in America survey, 75 percent of Americans now believe the lack of civility has reached a crisis level.

 

Passionate disagreement and debate over issues is a critical tenet of effective democracy. Our individual positions are informed by life experiences, worldviews, values and priorities. Thus, broad agreement across complex issues is impossible and unnecessary.

The growing crisis in American society is that animosity for positions is becoming disdain for the people who hold them. This “affective polarization” means we don’t just disagree with one another but dislike and distrust those who don’t share our views.

Pew Research Center finds that solid majorities of people engaged in politics are actually afraid of the other side. Furthermore, Pew measures increasingly cold views of people in the other party, plummeting on a thermometer from 0 to 100 to a frigid 24 and 23 degrees over the past year.  

The stark divisions and distrust now apparent across American society did not originate with a candidate or an election. While we have seen leaders cynically throw gas on simmering conflict, the underlying social and political tension can often be traced to economic, demographic, and cultural changes sweeping America. That means this problem is unlikely to substantially abate with any change in leadership or political power.

Change is up to us, the people.

I'm heartened by the fact that our fractured society is still made up of individual people. So, each person who sets aside interpersonal conflict for conversation and resolves to listen first — especially to those with whom they disagree or have different life experiences — tips the scales toward a new direction for society at large.

Among Americans, 56 percent expect civility to get worse in the next few years, says the Civility in America survey — but it doesn’t have to. This can be the year that we begin to turn this destructive tide, one conversation at a time. If enough people listen first in 2018, culture will change.

While politics is far from the only arena in which we fail to listen first, 2018 is a midterm election year and presents an opportunity for our political leaders to stand up for civility. According to a recent Marist poll, only 11 percent of Americans view political discourse as positive while 36 percent describe our discourse as angry. What would it look like for candidates across the country to pledge and strive to listen first this year?

Politicians on both sides recognize the problem. On the Senate floor, Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchSenate Finance leaders call on Commerce to improve the tariff-exclusion process GOP senators raise concerns about babies on Senate floor House passes series of bills to improve IRS MORE (R-Utah) recently bemoaned the fact that, “we don't even listen to each other anymore.”

President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWith Ryan out, let’s blow up the process for selecting the next Speaker When Barbara Bush praised Bill Clinton, and Clinton praised the man she loved Meet the Democratic sleeper candidate gunning for Senate in Nebraska MORE has said, “One of the things that bothers me more than anything else about our future is that… we don’t want to be around very many people who disagree with us… The most important thing is to be humble, to listen, to realize everybody’s got a story.”

Indeed, Pew reveals that most people now have just a few or no friends in the opposing party, and a Washington Post survey finds that Americans see fewer things that bind us together today than in the past.

At an event in New York City, President George W. Bush decried, “our discourse degraded by casual cruelty,” observing that “argument turns too easily to animosity; disagreement escalates into dehumanization.” In opening his recent Foundation Summit, President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPaltry wage gains, rising deficits two key tax reform concerns Throwing some cold water on all of the Korean summit optimism Colorado state lawmakers advance measure to rename highway after Obama MORE said, "Why don't we practice what we preach and listen first."

Dr. Brian Williams, a black trauma surgeon who treated the slain white police officers in Dallas said through tears on CNN, “I don’t know why this has to be us against them … we are all in this together … all this hatred, all these disagreements, it impacts us all … Something has to be done. I don’t see people truly listening to the other side … and until we’re ready to do that, there probably will not be any truly substantive change.”

As we enter a new year, each of us must decide what role we're going to play in shaping our shared future. Will we passively accept the perpetual "us versus them" conflict or will we actively encourage "me and you" conversations that bridge divides?

In listen first conversations — and the relationships they build — is hope for bridging the divides that threaten the fabric of American society.

In his 2001 inaugural address, President Bush said, “Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment; it is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos.” In the 17 years since, we’ve too often chosen cynicism and chaos, and we see where that has led. May we make a fresh choice for 2018 — a new resolution to listen first.

Pearce Godwin is founder and CEO of Listen First Project and the Listen First Coalition. He drives the national Listen First movement to rebuild civil discourse and bridge divides. Godwin can be reached at Pearce@ListenFirstProject.org.