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Amid The Fray

How to get past the polarization

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We've got to talk with each other. Talk doesn't necessarily change the other person. It may change us. The trick is how much we really listen.

Greg
Erlandson

In our belligerent times, there is a kind of in-your-face response to those of us wringing our hands about how divided our country is.

Everything can't be the snowflake center, this argument goes. There are very real things to be divided over: unborn babies, women's control of their bodies; guns that kill people, guns that defend people; illegal, undocumented; politically correct, politically incorrect.

It is actually a very long list. And the feeling that seems to transcend the divide, ironically, is that nothing transcends the divide. It is a fight till the other capitulates. Each election either affirms the unforgiving majority or replaces it with another equally unforgiving majority of an opposite persuasion.

What makes all of this even more impossible is that most of us -- no matter what majority or minority we belong to -- consider ourselves victims who must assert ourselves. Gun owners armed to the teeth are victims. Ivy League liberals and coastal elites think of themselves as put upon and besieged. Even billionaires whimper about how unfairly they are treated.

It is as if we are all trapped in an M.C. Escher drawing, in which oppressor becomes victim becomes oppressor becomes victim in a kind of infinite double helix of self-pity.

The phrase "common ground" is suspect, and "compromise" is the Voldemort of political expressions: None dare speak its name.

So what's a snowflake to do?

I've got three suggestions.

First, don't let the extremes make you think you're alone. The truth is that all of the divides described above are ideological stereotypes, filters through which many of our politicians, lobbyists and news media portray the world. More of us are unhappy with this state of affairs than the noise suggests. The problem is that there is more money to be made, more votes to be gotten, more clicks to be had, by mobilizing the polarities and stoking the passions.

That leads to my second suggestion: We've got to talk with each other. Talk doesn't necessarily change the other person. It may change us. The trick is how much we really listen. In this "hit 'em twice as hard as they hit us" world, we are often firing back at the other person before we've really ever heard what they are saying, how they are saying it and what it really reveals about their hopes and their fears.

Finally, if we can get past the stereotypes, dial back the extremes and listen to each other, there's a chance we'll find areas of agreement that can become the basis for productive change. Some great work has been done by activists on opposing sides of the abortion debate, for example, who have found agreement in a shared concern for the pregnant woman.

Georgetown University's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life is sponsoring a remarkable conference in early June called "Though Many, One: Overcoming Polarization Through Catholic Social Thought." The church's social teachings on human dignity, respect for life, the family, solidarity and care for creation provide a web of principles that place priority on the common good.

Keynoted by two church leaders who share a concern for the most vulnerable in society -- Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles and Cardinal Blasť J. Cupich of Chicago -- the conference is an invitation to build relationships and model the kind of dialogue that the nation needs. It may also become a catalyst for areas of potential agreement built upon Catholic social principles.

We aren't alone. We need to listen respectfully to each other. Then we need to seek areas of agreement.

It's not easy, but it is the only way forward.

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Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at gerlandson@catholicnews.com.

Greg Erlandson is director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service.

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