Civil Conversations

I launched The Goodness Project because I wanted to understand how I could become good, but I also had a much broader goal in mind: Exploring whether/how goodness can  help us create a better world. It has taken me nine months to realize what I actually mean by attaching the concept of goodness to politics and policy, and here it is: Goodness = the ability the do something for someone other than yourself.

Defining goodness in this way has huge implications for society. These implications came to mind as I read Krista Tippett’s post about civil conversations.

Tippett starts by quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer about people’s desperate search for someone who will listen and Christians’ inability to do so. She notes that he could be describing American Christians of the last 30 years, but that those Fundamentalist voices “have not been alone in their shrillness.” Most, if not all, of us are refusing to listen to each other, she says.

I agree. To listen, REALLY listen, requires us to be present for someone other than ourselves. It requires us to be present for people who make us uncomfortable, for people who may even threaten our lives and livelihoods. Too often these days politics has become an exercise in refusing to listen. One of the ways we refuse is to demonize our opposition. We’ve all seen this and maybe even done it ourselves: If you disagree with me, you’re evil, or you’re out to destroy the country and me with it.

To engage in politics in such a way that it builds a stronger society instead of tearing society down, we have to be willing to practice the goodness of listening. At the very least, we have to entertain the idea that the other person might have a good point every once in a while.

This doesn’t mean that we have to give up our own beliefs, but we do have to entertain the idea that we are not always right. I liked some of the approaches to this difficult task that Tippett wrote about in her post.

The pro-choice champion Frances Kissling says she has learned to ask, “What can I see that is good in the position of the other? And what troubles me in my own position?” The Evangelical educator Richard Mouw challenges himself and others to name “what it is about people like me that scares you so much. And what is it about what you are advocating that worries me so much about the future of our culture and the world in which my grandchildren are being raised?”

Listening in this way can be dangerous, and I don’t talk about it lightly. I’m writing as a lesbian and long-time human rights activist. The political opposition I face engages in direct attacks on my family. They question and organize against my family’s right to even exist. Some of them would have gladly taken away my son when he was a child. They would have orphaned him because in their minds a child is better off being cared for by the state than by a lesbian.

I suspect that some of the anti-gay right may be motivated by a quest for power and money. I know that some (many?) on the anti-gay right will never be open to a dialogue. (Cue Fred Phelps) But there are some who oppose full equality for LGBT people for other reasons. And these are the people I need to hear. I don’t have to agree with them, but I do have to listen.

The evangelical, Mouw, may have given me a path I can follow to do that. He is asking the most relevant questions. What it is about people like me (about LGBT people) that scares you so much? And what is it about what you are advocating that worries me so much about the future of our culture and the world in which my grandchildren are being raised?

And finally my own question: Is there a way for us to hear each other?

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