by Barry Bartel, member of Dialogue Resource Team and Glennon Heights Mennonite Church
Much of our reaction to what we see or hear is an initial, immediate response that comes without much thought or analysis. The response is shaped largely by who we are and the experiences we have had. That tendency became clear in the political process of the last election cycle. Each time a story hit the news, a large group of people gave the candidate the benefit of the doubt, and a large group assumed the worst. That difference can reflect a lot about our underlying world view and the intuition it creates.
In an article reprinted in the December 19 Mennonite World Review (http://religionnews.com/2016/12/07/its-time-we-think-of-politics-more-like-religion/), Arthur Farnsley reflected about how students in his college classes initially think that religious identity and behavior are primarily about ideas. But we never approach ideas from a neutral position, he says. Our identity and the intuitions that flow from it are shaped by our “tribal membership long before [we] know a menu of ideas even exists.” By the time we think about the ideas, their interpretation, acceptance, or rejection is already deeply conditioned.
Farnsley argues that ideas do not create religious identity; they follow from it: “Ideas still matter but these ideas matter mostly to those who share a group’s identity. Catholics do not become Catholics, nor do Muslims or Jews become Muslims or Jews, because of reasoned argument: Who we are comes first. It’s time to acknowledge that political identity and behavior operate more like religion than many of us care to admit.”
That is, both our religious identity (Mennonite, Catholic) and our political affiliation (democrat, republican) were initially (though not permanently) shaped before we were thinking about what ideas they represent. Who we are creates an intuition that affects how we view ideas.
One challenge with our presidential election process is that it usually results in a choice between two imperfect candidates, pushing our intuitions toward one of only two choices. In this last process, people seemed so polarized that it was common for people supporting either candidate to wonder how anyone could possibly consider voting for the other. We reinforce that tendency as we isolate our conversations to those with similar perspectives.
Our intuition to support one view can cause us to assume the worst about those with another view. I find it helpful to think of someone I otherwise respect and admire, but who I imagine voted for the other candidate. I think through how it could be that s/he would have voted that way. After I suggested this in a church gathering, a friend took it a step further, and created an imaginary dialogue between a Trump supporter and a Trump opponent. Taking such an exercise seriously requires you to engage the issues more than the intuitive response to give the benefit of the doubt to your view or to assume the worst about the other.
Give it a try! It won’t eliminate differences. But it could lead to more understanding and dialogue.