Seeing the Other in Our Midst

Mark Chupp
September 15, 2020

Conflict abounds this election season. Where will it end?

I had an experience on my street earlier this summer where a group of neighbors gathered for our weekly sidewalk happy hour. Many neighbors have known each other for years and openly express their views on just about any topic. At some point, the comments started having a political edge to them, eventually escalating to an unbridled attack on one candidate for president.

Some weeks later a neighbor emailed me with a message that began with, “This is a difficult note to write but one that needs to be written.” What followed was a gentle but direct calling out of the neighbors who made assumptions about people’s political leanings and views. In a community that prides itself in its diversity, there was no room for their views. They chose to stand in awkward silence rather than confront us at the time. Now with the email, they were pulling back from future neighborhood gatherings. They referenced an earlier time when people could have friendships, share camaraderie without the majority of those gathered slamming the minority. Back then, politics was not even a part of the conversation.

We have deteriorated into camps. People are reluctant to associate across the red-blue divide. Each side feels that losing the presidential election will be the end of our democracy. Friendships are severed as those who profess to promote tolerance can no longer be in the presence of a Republican. We are losing the ability to be civil, to engage all members of the community in the commons. Social media has mostly made things worse, where memes and inflammatory stories are used to score points against the other side. Rarely do people’s views soften through such tactics.

What should I do? Should I resign myself to the fact that we are so polarized we cannot share the same public space with those of the opposing view? My neighbor’s email stated that they clearly value diversity and thought the rest of the neighborhood did too. What about them?

In an effort to make amends, I wrote back to my neighbors. I acknowledged that I was one of those who made assumptions, ignoring their silence that I now recognize was obvious. I apologized and committed to do better. I shared that I have family members and biking friends who hold political views diametrically opposed to mine and we are able to enjoy each other’s company. Given their preference for not getting into politics, I offered to add the following statement to any invitation for future gatherings on the street, “Given that we are nearing a divisive national election, let's be mindful that not everyone holds the same views. Please be respectful if you choose to talk about your political views."

This made a difference as we started to reconnect. Both sides communicating honestly and with care created the space to respect each other and honor our differences. We shifted from email to a face-to-face conversation. We talked about our differences and then moved on to things that do not divide us. There are new neighbors moving in. They appreciated the caution about talking about politics and they are coming to our upcoming lawn concert.

Differences need not spiral downward to unresolved conflict. Now, before the election is the time to engage those you know who represent another view. Not to set them straight but to listen and recognize that they are also driven by values and a desire for a better community and country. If we can slow down and listen, truly listen, we are likely to see that there are some things we share in common.

Searching for common ground is a worthy endeavor. Facing conflict courageously can restore relationships and help us discover our shared humanity. Even though we disagree, we can still see each other as valued members of the community.

Conflict can divide; it can also help us see our interconnectedness. The choice is ours. It is on all of us to work today to prevent a meltdown after the November election. Who will you reach out to and offer to listen to? We need each other.