Social media, the news media, and the general culture seem to be mired in political unrest these days. In the last election I watched as family members and friends fought public battles (using their keyboards) that went beyond political disagreements and landed squarely into personal attacks and damaged relationships. Does the open exchange of ideas that is so precious to the United States culture (and many others around the world) have to result in such bitter divides? Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, shared at a conference at the United States Institute of Peace, his conviction that “political peace is possible.”
Political peace does not mean abandoning debate, disagreements, or the democratic process. It does not even mean that we eliminate anger. There has always been anger, and will always be anger when there are important life impacting decisions at stake. Anger is not necessarily the problem. The problem, explained Brooks, is the current climate of contempt. The Cambridge Dictionary defines contempt as “a strong feeling of lack of respect for someone or something.” A strong lack of respect for another person is a major barrier to communication and understanding. Functioning from a framework of contempt for other positions, explains Brooks, “is a perfect way for you to make a perfect enemy.” When people sense contempt from others, they take it personally. They often feel that they are not really being heard, and respond back with contempt of their own. Contempt compounds anger that is already present and leads to the kind of ugly political climate that is playing out across the world.
Showing respect for others, and their positions and opinions, does not suggest that we agree with them or are giving in. In reality it increases the likelihood of productive debate, where each side not only communicates their own ideas and positions, but listens to the other. It improves the odds that common ground will be found, or that a sound argument will be persuasive. And even if a vibrant exchange of ideas doesn’t impact the other persons political views, by disagreeing better, we are less likely to damage relationships in the process.
Political peace is possible. The caveat though, is that it is only possible if we are willing to recognize and let go of our contempt for the other party’s position. Once we release the contempt, we can treat others with respect, and respect is one of the key foundations of peace.
Want to read the whole article on Arthur Brooks presentation at Passing the Baton conference? https://www.usip.org/publications/2017/01/political-peace-possible-says-aei-president
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Esther DeWitt is an industrial-organizational psychology practitioner specializing in conflict and leadership issues. As president of Conflict Navigation, her services include mediation, leadership and organizational consulting and training, anger management coaching, and curriculum and material development.