I believe in the need for civil political discourse. But I’m also part of the problem.

On Thursday, we had the pleasure of welcoming CT Congressman Jim Himes and CNN anchor and SLS parent Alisyn Camerota to the Hilltop.

The two offered advice, opinions, and thoughts surrounding the notion of civil political discourse as they fielded questions from Head of School Mark Davis and several Upper School students. Each communicated a distinct perspective on the divisive political landscape that currently exists in our nation. Congressman Himes spoke as an elected representative who remains fully immersed in the day-to-day political process, while Camerota relayed her experience of moderating thoughtful conversations for public view.

While they occasionally disagreed on minute details and phrases, both remained adamant when it came to one fundamental ideal: the importance of listening – civilly and thoughtfully – to those who belong to the tribe on the other side of the aisle.

Sitting in the audience, I wanted so badly to believe that I am wholly capable of that. I nodded my head in agreement, but I’ll admit that there were several moments during which I imagined a scenario – hypothetical or otherwise – in which I simply couldn’t listen. I thought about the political issues that I care most about and the opposing viewpoints that I often struggle to give voice to.

I knew that I wholeheartedly agree with Himes and Camerota, but at times the whole thing felt utterly idealistic. Yes, it’s easy to say that we need to listen to each other and respect opposing viewpoints. But actually practicing this value is an entirely separate entity. And it’s something that I am ashamed to admit I often can’t bring myself to do.

I spent the rest of the day pondering why I, an 18-year-old senior in high school, can’t fathom engaging in some of the same conversations that members of my generation criticize our elders for running away from. People my age are supposed to have fluid, free-flowing views. We’re supposed to set a better example than those before us, to show that we can be both politically engaged and civilly minded. I believe this is the best way forward, but why do I struggle to practice what I preach?  

What I have now come to realize is that as my opinions and world views have developed over the past several years, I have allowed my political beliefs to become inextricably linked with my moral values. When I ponder what it is that I believe in and the kind of life that I strive to lead, I can’t separate my political convictions from my emotional ones. I don’t necessarily think that’s unusual – or “bad,” for that matter. But it can be dangerous.

When I think about having conversations with those on the other side, I don’t contemplate the nitty-gritty elements of tax policy or trade agreements. Instead, I often gravitate towards the issues to which I feel emotionally connected – those that directly reflect my moral values. I think about the horrifying remarks that have been made by those on the other side – the comments that strike an emotional nerve with me. And once I’ve done all that, I can’t fathom hearing the opposing viewpoints; I’ve already manufactured a climate in which my beliefs are undeniably moral and correct, and thus the opinions of those on the other side are so fundamentally ill-bred that they simply do not deserve to be heard.

I’m not ashamed to have strong moral and political values, and there are certain issues that I find so pressing, so urgent, and so undeniable that I simply cannot and will not imagine another train of thought. Politicians on the other side have made remarks that I plainly refuse to forget. And I won’t apologize for that.

My ultimate fault, though, is that I have failed to realize that none of this means that I can’t listen.

My political beliefs are so wrapped up in my emotions that I manufacture the very same climate as I enter each conversation. The remarks that have become so deeply ingrained in my mind inevitably pierce my ear. The voice inside my head spits out reasons as to why my views are “correct” and those which I am about to hear are not only wrong, but catastrophic.

I realize now that, as I create this environment, I am putting words in the mouth of my “opponent” before I even begin to listen. Is it possible that they maintain some of the views that I struggle to swallow? Or that they agree with one of the political remarks that remains imprinted in my memory? Yes, of course it is. But there is a greater chance that their opinions are far more nuanced, and that they actually condemn what that one politician said several years or months ago. I’ll never know, though, unless I start the conversation and commit to being a thoughtful and engaged listener.

When I asked myself these questions as Himes and Camerota shared their views with the SLS community, I could find only one harsh answer: I am not willing to abandon my firm views, and so any true “civil political discourse” with a member of the opposing party may be out of the question for me.

I realize now just how close-minded this train of thought is. Why should I have to suppress my beliefs in order to listen to those of others? In fact, I certainly don’t have to do this. What I do have to do, though, is interrupt myself as I begin to lay the groundwork for that mental climate that I am prone to creating. Once I can do that, I can enter the conversation not without my strong convictions, but without premeditatively designating beliefs to whomever I may be talking to. Then, I can let the conversation run its course, and if I disagree, and something strikes a moral or emotional nerve, I’ll be unapologetic in defending myself.

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