Adrienne: Thanksgiving is coming up, and with so many controversial hot topics right now– Donald Trump and the US election, COVID-19 and mask wearing, racial injustice and the defunding of police– dinner table conversation could get very heated. So today, our Wellness columnist Scott McPherson is joining us to talk about civil discourse and moving away from polarization and towards unity. Hi Scott.
Scott: Hi Adrienne.
Adrienne: Okay. Maybe we should start with, ‘what’s changed?’ Why do people seem to be less reasonable and more aggressive than they were, even only five years ago?
Scott: Well, you know, we started off with a bunch of advantages that we may not have actually noticed before. So we had like two World Wars where people needed to come together. And then, previously, there were a lot fewer conveniences in life. So everybody leaned on each other a lot more. So this is the era where things like Community Leagues got invented. There was a lot of community stuff. Plus, real wages rose steadily from WWII all the way to about the mid 70’s. So people were in really good moods. Even the music was happy. Glen Miller keeping even wartime positive with stuff like ‘In the Mood.’ Motown had a lot of upbeat stuff. The hippies were going to save the world with Coca Cola and Progressive Rock. Disco had people like the Bee Gees doing stuff like ‘Staying Alive.‘ So, it was all super positive. But the periods since then saw the wage gap grow. The Cold War was everyone trying to avoid nuclear annihilation. Business got way more ruthless. So by the time we got to Grunge music, it actually was marking a shift in tone for the society overall. Then shortly after that we all split off into individual little iWorld’s, where we all stopped listening to each other because we had iPods stuck in our ears. And that’s right when social media showed up. But we’re all online at different times. So people’s replies were coming an hour later and, what used to be back-and-forth discussions, start to feel just more like firm statements. Then later, our egos would have trouble backing down from stuff we said, even if people had some pretty good counter-arguments.
Adrienne: So, rather than a sudden change, we’ve been shifting this way for a while?
Scott: Yeah. It’s tempting to see it as ‘new,’ but if we look closely it’s not hard to see that the public messaging during WWII was about how everyone was in everything, together. But by 2001, we have the iPod and pretty much all the discussions are about individuality. So if we add that back-and-forth nature of social media, the divisions start feeling almost inevitable.
Adrienne: So, is that more selfish, ‘my way or the highway’ approach– more our nature now?
Scott: Not our nature I don’t think, no. Humans are still pack animals, so we’re still tilted towards working together. So that means any cooperating that we do, will feel good. So that’ll help. But one of the best things we can do –that we used to better– is listen better. On social media, if someone ‘says’ something we don’t like, we can just ignore it. Or we can even toss out a casual insult. And at a distance, that kind of thing doesn’t feel as mean as it would in person. But, over time, public discourse deteriorates to the point where people just end up just shouting insults at each other. I’m sure everybody’s seen examples of it. Really nice people being mean.
Adrienne: Too many examples, actually. So, are there ways to rebuild that sense of unity?
Scott: Yeah, for sure. And the world’s even helping. Because COVID is like a giant empathy machine. I mean, the news is always going to focus on that small group of people that isn’t getting along. But in reality, if we look at the news, in the background, most people in most places are wearing masks, and that’s all about protecting other people. And yeah, people are concerned about how much we’re paying for aid programs, but everybody pretty much agrees we got to spend that public money to keep other people afloat. So as much as there is division, there’s also more unity, and charity, and kindness being shown all at the same time. It’s actually a lot like WWII. There’s even a lot of heroes and survivors walking around. So, we all have this sense that we’re having a collective experience, which really helps. All we have to do now is kind of supercharge that by re-learning how to listen to each other.
Adrienne: And who should we be listening to?
Scott: Well, you know we’re all pretty good at listening to people we agree with. So no one really needs help there. The trick is, we all have to learn to listen to the people we don’t agree with. And to do that, first off, we have to appreciate that every point of view is actually honest. People don’t have those views just to be difficult, or to bug us. They might be working off of different, or even bad, information. They might have different values. But they’ll always generally be as sincere as we are. So we have to remember, if it’s a real discussion, we have to meet them in that sincerity, and we have to at least be prepared to be wrong about some things as well.
Adrienne: Uh huh. So humility is a big part of making those connections?
Scott: Yeah, it certainly helps turn our ears on. I mean, no one’s perfect. Including us. Besides, being wrong isn’t even that bad. I mean it’s –finding out we’re wrong is the start of being right. The people who believe the same things we do, they’ll be wrong about the same things we are. So they’re not much help to us. It’s the ones that don’t agree with us, that are more likely to know what we’re actually wrong about. But to find out if they’re right or not we need some common ground to build off of. And to find that, we’re going to have to listen for it for it.
Adrienne: I love that. ‘Finding out we’re wrong is just the start of being right.’ Okay, so how can we do this?
Scott: Uh, well, we can change our objective. Instead of listening to others to compare their ideas to ours, we have to start listening to agree. So rather than noting every thought they have that we don’t agree with, we’re listening for anything we do agree with. Even if that only like, one thing. So, if it’s someone that –if we wear a mask, rather than telling other people they should wear one, we can ask them why they don’t? Maybe they start off with some statement about freedom, and their libertarian right to make their own choices, and not have others tell them how to live. And maybe on the mask we totally disagree with their conclusion. But, if we’re watching for it, we might notice that we actually can relate to what it feels like to have other people telling us what to do when we don’t agree with them. Like, for instance, maybe we want our kids to walk to school. But there’s some other parent in the neighbourhood that thinks that’s too dangerous so they’re always reporting us. Then we might feel offended that someone was telling us how to parent our kid. If we can feel that, now we have a point of empathy with the person not wearing the mask. We know what it’s like to have someone else tell us to do something we really don’t think we should do. So, that way, even if we don’t agree with their actual opinion; at least we know how they feel. And that alone can help us feel more empathetic toward someone we could have written off as pointless.
Adrienne: Mmhmm. Now, I understand that you have an easy exercise that can help us to practice our open-mindedness. How does that work?
Scott: Well, I guess it’ll depend on the person, how easy it is. Basically, we can use the radio, or our TV ,or social media to practice. But, we really want to start listening really carefully to people that we generally know we’re going to 100% disagree with. So, this is pretty easy today, because most politicians seem to be pretty polarizing. So all we have to do is find one, or some other person that we’re pretty sure we’re going to 100% disagree with, and then we have to listen for things we do agree with. And the genuine part of that is really important. It can’t be painted-on empathy. For these exercises to work and have value, we’ve gotta be sincere. We’ve gotta see those people less as just, that view we don’t like, and more as complete person that includes those views. So we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, as a fellow human being, we’ll always share more than we we differ.
Adrienne: So our job is to listen to the people we normally disagree with, for statements that we do agree with?
Scott: Exactly. We can’t just talk to the sharp end of one view a person has. We have to include the whole person. Including the reasons that they believe what they believe. So even if we don’t completely buy their whole argument, that’s okay. At least we know why they believe what they believe, and we can often find some space for some compassion and connection there. But we’ll never find those points of connection if we’re never listening for them. So for the next week, I’d actually recommend that all of us make a really serious concerted effort to practice listening to, and agreeing with, the people we see as just, most-different from ourselves. Once we can get to the point where we can actually picture a person that we don’t like, hanging out and having fun with their best friend, where it seems like, really believable they’d be fun? Then we’re starting to see the whole person instead of just a cardboard impression of them. And that alone can help us remember that we still have a lot in common with everybody. And it’s that’s common ground that we need to meet on. Because it’s from there, that we’re going to build that new future, together.
Adrienne: I hope everybody remembers this at Thanksgiving dinner.
Scott: Yeah, it’s a really good exercise. I hope people really do do it.
Adrienne: For sure. Thanks so much Scott.
Scott: Thank you.
Adrienne: Scott McPherson is our Wellness Columnist. He teaches mindfulness at relaxandsucceed.com, here in Edmonton.
Every couple of weeks I have the pleasure of joining Adrienne Pan, the co-host of Radio Active on CBC Radio One. You can listen via AM740, FM93.9 (in Edmonton), through the CBC Listen app, or via the web on Radio One at CBC.ca. Today we’ll be on at 5:20pm.
Once the show has aired, if there is an audio version available I will add a link to it here. A listing of all of the columns is here. For those without audio versions, I will attach a transcript of the column to the bottom of this post after its airing.
There is a great deal of polarization that is disrupting the success of many important public conversations. But before we can find any common ground to work from, we must first find ways to listen to those we disagree with. Today’s column features an exercise we can undertake that can help improve our ability to truly hear what other people are really saying.
Consider checking us out. If you’ve never heard the CBC Radio Active show before, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. They have a great team.
Take care everyone.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.