Listening, respect and the flow of democracy

Last month, we opened the door to an expanded way of thinking about Daily Herald editorials when we hosted a meeting of the new members of a Sounding Board we assembled to help ensure that we consider a broad range of arguments in the editorials we write.

Around a conference room table, men and women of vastly diverse life experiences, social backgrounds and political ideologies spoke warmly about the prospects of exchanging ideas with each other and acknowledged at least one value we all share — the importance of being able to engage constructively with people whose ideas are different from our own.

Broadening the reach of our thinking was the driving force behind the founding of this board, but as I told the group at our meeting, an important secondary goal for me is to demonstrate that people of such divergent points of view can interact with each other respectfully and meaningfully. From the earliest period of original thought, such engagement has been a challenge for humans. It seems to be ingrained in our nature to assume the rightness of our own thinking and condemn the wrongness of any other — even, in the era of free-speech democracy, while extolling people’s right to say or believe whatever they want. That conflict has reached a flashpoint in the social media age. Much has been studied and written about the polemical silos in which so many of us have barricaded ourselves. I believe these stationary silos are the antithesis of democracy, which thrives not on the isolation of individual truths but on the constant flow and intermingling of often contradictory ideas.

If we can’t learn to navigate that flow, to swim within it and learn from it, then democracy is in trouble. I hope the interactions between the members of our Editorial Board and our Sounding Board will help show how to keep our democracy strong. And there is good reason to be encouraged. After we assembled this group, I sent each person a questionnaire asking for some personal information and adding a few questions about how often they find themselves involved in discussions with people who strongly disagree with them, whether they learn anything or change their minds in such discussions and what makes such interactions constructive.

Almost all of them acknowledged that such discussions are common in their lives and described strategies for success that came down to two words — listen and respect.

“While I understand I may not entirely change someone’s mind on an issue, my goal is usually to help them see that complex issues do not have simple answers,” wrote Christine Radogno, who as Republican former Illinois Senate minority leader has no small amount of experience dealing with conflicting points of view.

At 17 years old, Grace Garlick doesn’t have Radogno’s range of experience, but she already has found the wisdom of her philosophy. “A discussion should not have two people yelling over each other,” she wrote. “Each person should have their time to speak, and every person should share the same respect they are given when someone else is speaking.”

Similar strategies were repeated over and over on the questionnaires and in our group meeting. No doubt, we can continue to find ways to broaden the types of experience and ideas represented on the Sounding Board and, as the project continues, I’m sure that will be an ongoing goal. But already the group features people who proudly identify as conservatives and people who proudly identify as liberals, people whose political and social values I have no clue about, people with deep religious convictions, people whose religious identities I couldn’t guess, young people, retired people, middle-aged people, white people, people of color, people with experience in law, business, education, psychology and the chaos of raising a family while pursuing a career. Indeed, there are myriad ways to show how they are different from each other. I am so looking forward to seeing how they will come together in democracy.

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