A Senior Moment – “Bridges or Barriers?”

Since the surprising 2016 election of Donald trump, I have been searching in vain for someone with whom I might share a calm, rational conversation about the 45th president of the United States. So far, no luck.

I raise that name, not to provoke yet another loud argument, but to point out that even normally reasonable people have difficulty listening to any positive opinion of Trump. I may not be a fan of the President but I would enjoy hearing a pro-Trump perspective if it were thoughtfully presented.

These days it seems as if public discourse, locally and nationally, is quickly heating up just as the weather slowly descends into the damp cold of November. In my town a recent meeting about the proposed location and design of a new building suddenly turned contentious. Many of us became reluctantly addicted to the bitterly-fought Kavanaugh hearings in Washington. An angry war of words erupted this week in our own House of Commons. Bipartisan consensus in the American Senate is becoming a distant memory and in the nation itself. Viewers and presenters on Fox News Channel and CNN at times seem to inhabit different planets.

When did we assume ”the other side” of any issue no longer has anything of value to contribute to the common good? Historically, the “commons” was a place where ideas could be freely shared, but more importantly were actually listened to and considered on merit. Many Renaissance towns and cities were redesigned to include a public square where the concept of free speech gradually became permitted then ultimately, over following centuries, guarded zealously as a fundamental right.

Universities have traditionally been bastions of free expression. Now, across North America, ideas which are deemed to be too unpopular are increasingly being disallowed on campus. Conservative speakers have had guest lectures disrupted or invitations hastily rescinded by nervous administrators.

Assuming most citizens, locally and nationally, at least pay lip service to the concept of free speech, how can this disturbing trend be reversed? Consider these reasonable steps:

—-recognize we do not possess the only truth on every issue.

—-offer our own opinions thoughtfully but without assuming our listener is automatically agreeing with us. Why do we always presume everyone present in a group shares our anti-trump tirade, position on abortion, immigration or our religious views? Their silence may not be assent but rather reflects a fear of being unfairly labelled should they voice an opposing viewpoint.

—-invite other opinions and listen without prejudging the presentation.

—-be open to changing our mind.

—-agree to disagree if necessary, rejecting the opposing argument but not the person presenting it.

—-recognize there is likely much more that unites us than divides us. What do we hold in common?

Of course, there should be exceptions to this approach toward bridge-building. Barriers can and should be erected against hate speech, libel and defamation. Some opinion is too odious to be given the light of day. Yet most ideas which radically differ from our own strongly held views need to be respected and encouraged to be given voice. This surely is the essence of democracy and a free society