I’ve been reflecting on all of the ways Trump has galvanized people into action ever since he was elected. For me, as a leadership consultant and coach, it was an awakening, a “red pill” moment. The chasm between ideologies was so glaringly, frighteningly wide, and I knew it was time to share some of the antidote to the social polarization that increases daily. I wrote the following 3 years ago. Time to share some thoughts...
Some people were appalled and others delighted in Trump’s election promise of a great wall, a beautiful wall that would keep dangerous immigrants out of the US and keep its imperiled citizens safe. Trump promised this wall and he’s been fighting for it ardently ever since he was elected. The sad truth is he has already succeeded beyond his wildest dreams—in everything we read now we see can evidence of this wall between “us” and “them;” it’s a poignant, heartbreaking metaphor for the state of our world, for the state of our relationships and our mutual humanity in general.
The instinct to build walls is hardwired in all of us. The walls I’m talking about arise from the primal instinct to be safe and to belong. One of the ways we feel safe is by being part of a tribe. So we build walls—psychological, ideological, and then physical, to define “us” and “not us.” The contours of the ideological walls we’ve witnessed in recent years are so very seductive. This wall feels so right, because in my mind I know that I am right, and you are wrong. I am on the side of right; you are wrong because you do not see the world the way I do, you do not express your values in a way that resonates with me. We begin to call each other names across this chasm of self-righteousness.
This wall has subtly been closing in around us and entrapping us for some time--Facebook and social media feeds have created for us an echo chamber in which our own ideology reflects itself back to us until there is no longer any question that our truth is the prevailing truth. Anyone who thinks differently must be a member of misinformed, misguided angry alt right or misinformed, misguided, angry band of snowflakes. All of the brain’s cognitive biases are hermetically sealed in and reinforced. Whichever ideological echo chamber we find ourselves enclosed within, it invariably resounds with fears for the future and soul wrenching angst.
We have reason to be afraid—it certainly is frightening to witness what is happening in our world. But what is truly scary for me is how blindingly easy it is for all of us to adopt the very mindset we deplore in Trump. How very easy it is for us to call Trump supporters idiots, or Clinton supporters evil. How seamlessly we slip into demonizing others for being “other”, for being “them” and not “us.” This is how war starts. It starts right here in our very own minds. As soon as I believe I have the monopoly on truth and the right way to see the world, I shut you down if you see the world differently. And the chasm continues to widen.
We do however have the power to bridge the divide, to reclaim some peace of mind, and to engage in difference constructively.
Here are some of the pre-requisites for the emergence of healthier political, economic and social systems.
Listen. Find someone whose views you disagree with or find incomprehensible and simply listen to them. Ask questions. Be curious. Be generous. Be compassionate. Give them the quality of listening you would be wish for if they were listening to you. Many people fear if they listen genuinely and openly that they are somehow complicit, or agreeing with, or giving tacit assent to, the views of the other person. This is not the case. You are only listening, that’s all. The more genuine your desire to understand, the more open your heart is to this other human being (not open to their views, open to them as another human being), the more likely it is that they will in turn be able to listen to you and that some small measure of mutual ground may be found. And from that mutual ground a new kind of political action and awareness might emerge. I am not, repeat NOT, suggesting any sort of moral relativism. Each of us has a right, indeed an obligation, to advocate for what we believe in, and to discern right from wrong. But when we advocate without the capacity to first listen generously to others, then we lose the power to effect real change because we further entrench a polarizing dynamic that serves no one and gets us nowhere
Speak. Speak openly, speak fiercely and speak fearlessly about what you love, about what you yearn for, and what you fear. Speaking with this kind of vulnerability makes it possible for others to hear you. If you are so busy making the “other” wrong, or trying to point out the errors in their thinking, you are simply contributing to that huge, beautiful, Trumpian wall. Speaking with your heart means a kind of exposure most of us are acutely uncomfortable with, but it is the only way to deconstruct the beautiful wall. It is the only way anything different, and better, can happen.
Be still. I know there is a lot to do. There are demonstrations to attend, there are petitions to sign, blog posts to write. Do all of these things, of course. Get involved, run for office, get your friend to run for office, volunteer…But do these things not out of fear, rage, or hatred; that only builds the wall higher, and makes more people wrong and “other.” In order to act with wisdom, please take time to listen to your own heart and be patient as Rilke once said, with all that is unsolved in your own heart. Of course you are angry, confused, and fearful. The state of the world gives us good cause for all of those emotions. The thing is, if you can find some stillness inside your own head and heart, you are far more likely to do the right things, in the right way, for the right reasons. You cannot change the outcome of the election in the US. But you can let compassion, not revulsion, fuel your actions; you can choose wisdom, not self-righteousness to guide your conversations with others, and you can begin to embody the political change you yearn to see in the world.
I’ll be hosting a series on Radical Listening this year (2020 ); topics will be vast and varied, as this social experiment is all about learning how to listen in ways that broaden and illuminate our thinking. Each month starting in April of 2020 we’ll practice using tools and processes that you can take with you everywhere—into your workplace, your home, your community, your social media world—and that can help you make a positive difference wherever it matters most to you. Stay in touch for topics, dates and places (virtual and live).