Respectful debate, open minds and democracy

When thoughts rush by
And your signals seem to fly
Keep it open
Keep it open
And help me keep mine open too

Some will lie behind
But we needn’t be unkind
Keep it open
Keep it open
And help me keep mine open too

Sun stoned in the east
In our eyes let there be peace
Keep it open
Keep it open
And help me keep mine open too
Bruce Cockburn – Keep It Open (1970)

One of the reasons I love to travel is getting exposed to a different cultures and attitudes.  Ever since my university days I have been suspect of ideological stridency.  It’s not that I don’t have strongly held views it’s just that I feel that we would be better off if we understood the perspective of those that don’t see the world as we do.  If we walked a mile in their shoes, so to speak.

When I first went to Virginia for university in the mid 1980s I was surprised to find there were still Baptist churches in the south with smoking rooms in the church.  How could that be possible?   Well, it turns out many of the tobacco farmers were Baptists.  I was also surprised at the ongoing discomfort that some people down there felt towards racial integration.  There was still quite a bit of at least low level racism in the mid 1990s.  I didn’t get it. My best friend was an African American and easily the coolest guy I knew – then and likely now too. (sorry, LP Gauthier).    But, again, I tried to put myself in their shoes.  What if I had been raised in the mostly segregated south?  What if my parents had supported segregation?  What if their parents did?  It is a learned behaviour.

Now this doesn’t mean I agreed with them – at all.  But if I just completely dismissed them personally would I have any chance of helping to change their minds?

This is my fear today.  We have zealots – with deeply held views on the ends of the ideological spectrum and many of them are prone to scorn anyone who doesn’t in a full-throated way agree with them.   They are are forced to take sides – “if you aren’t with me, you are against me”.  So, instead of thoughtful debate we get a break down into hard and fast camps.  Those camps exist in their own echo chambers.

What about Bruce Cockburn’s recommendation from the early 1970s about keeping an open mind? And, if some “lie behind” we needn’t be unkind?  It could turn out we were wrong.

On my recent vacation I talked with a Peruvian taxi driver in Buenos Aires who was convinced the reason traffic gets real bad in that city at 4 or  5 pm is that all Argentinians are inherently lazy and want to get to work at 10 and leave by 4; or the other taxi driver who was convinced that President Macri was the devil incarnate – and dragging the country down fast.  I had dinner with the president of a large auto manufacturer in Brazil, the owner of a fast growing SME, and long talks with an executive with a biofuels manufacturing firm.  I also was able to have dinner with an avowed leftist and strong supporter of former president and currently jailed Lula.

My head was filled with a mass of contradiction but I listened and learned.

It’s not that I believe we should not hold strong views on important issues such as social policy, economic fairness, environmental stewardship, how to raise children, etc. but I worry that the tone of discourse is such these days that the ground for compromise and for the democratic process of working toward a solution – that may not be ideal for everyone but that resulted from a democratic process – is shrinking.  Too many people on the right and the left these days are waiting for the strongman (or woman) to come in and impose their view on the world.  That may feel good to some and it may actually be a better outcome (think China versus India) in the short run but in the long run I prefer messy democracy to clean autocracy.

 

 

 

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