When I visit the United States, many friends want to hear my European “outsider” point of view since they know my interest in religion, politics, history and current issues. Not in a sense that I am some kind of expert or have the best analysis. The main reason is that they like me and I like them and they trust me to respect their views. Even if we see things differently.
We all know the old maxim – polite dinner table conversation among friends, family and, especially, strangers should avoid discussing politics, religion and other “private”, sensitive topics. We don’t want to stir up strong personal opinions and disagreements, experience unpleasant or embarrassing reactions, etc. I think of the countless movie scenes where finally the father or, usually, the mother tells everyone to shut up, change the subject and simply enjoy being together as “family”.
It is nothing original but I want to strongly challenge this maxim. In the current age of incivility, polarization and disrespect I believe that we need to bring hard topics to our places of fellowship between friends and gatherings among family. My argument is very simple. Where else can we learn to practice robust, open and honest conversations with civility, respect and even love?
There are articles, books, research and whatnot written about all the negative “side effects” of our digital age of internet, social media and technology. One of them being the danger of “echo chambers” where we only chat with the people who think like us. Other big communication problems are the lack of civility, bullying, trolling, demonizing and so on. These days we are not just missing critical thinking, logical arguments and fact checking. We are missing a basic civility and simple kindness to another human being. Our social communication and interaction is becoming nastier and more toxic. No wonder we need such initiatives as, for example, Kindness Institute at University of California-Los Angeles.
Let me say that I have a fear and dislike of sharp, public arguments. I don’t even like to join discussion threads on social media like Facebook commentaries. Many times I have written my piece of mind only to delete it seconds later. I am extremely careful not to add “more fuel to the fire”. Plus, I don’t feel like I can influence anyone’s opinion or have a deep, robust conversation in the digital world. You may question then why I write a blog, but somehow it seems different. I write down my reflections and trust that somewhere and somehow it will resonate.
Our modern/postmodern society has another big problem – the lack of trust. Specially not trusting any institutions and “sources” whether it is mainstream media, education, government, even the church. Often in discussions about polarizing political or faith issues I get the question of what are my “sources”. Who is your authority? If we are from different camps, we are usually not even interested in the honest answer. We have made up our minds that to see things differently is narrow-minded, ignorant or even dangerous. Then we don’t feel bad to treat other people unkindly or disrespectfully.
This is where the dinner table in the company of family or friends comes in. Family or friends discussions about sensitive and difficult issues are important. We all need places where we can practice civil disagreements with respect and love for each other. Of course, we still need to use judgement what topics and when but not talking about the “elephant in the room” is not the solution. Always avoiding difficult topics is like saying “peace, peace” where there is no peace. I don’t mean that we need to force debates simply for arguments sake, but we do need to cultivate the civility and atmosphere of openness and inclusion.
When the person whom I disagree with is a person I feel affection for, things are different. Communication is more personal. Desire to listen is greater. I know that I want this relationship to flourish, even if our views are polar opposites. Also, with family and friends I am usually much more open and interested to understand their views. I don’t dismiss their “sources” and I am more ready to hear another perspective. If we don’t learn how to do it “inside” the home and with our close friends, how are we going to learn to do it “outside”? If we don’t want to do it with family and friends, what makes us think that we will want to do it with strangers? Or in the anonymous digital reality?
Therefore it is more important now than ever to break the taboo and keep the divisive and excluding topics at our dinner table…