Political Differences: A Cause for Fighting or for Learning?

Political Differences: A Cause for Fighting or for Learning?

This summer, I have been working on my leadership development ‘chops’. In June, I became certified to administer and interpret the Fundamentals of Interpersonal Orientation-Behavior assessment (more commonly called the FIRO-B® and FIRO Business®). This week, I completed the certification training for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI®.

I am someone who loves the formal, traditional process of learning. Having the chance to spend time in the classroom as a student has not filled me with dread; it has excited me.

I know . . . some of you are thinking, “That would drive me nuts!”

That’s okay. We just have different preferences and different needs. I can respect yours and the choices you make in response to them. And I know you can do the same for me.

The power of the tools I have learned to use isn’t in their fundamental truth. If a theory can help us develop tools to navigate some aspect of the inner or outer world, if we frequently or usually end up in what we judge to be a better place when we use those tools, then the theory is useful and the tools worth refining and using.

This approach to theory and method applies equally well outside the realm of counseling and psychological analysis.

Maps, for example, are dramatic oversimplifications of physical reality. Some maps highlight transportation infrastructure. Some highlight landmarks. As long as it helps us get where we want to go in a relatively efficient and safe manner, a map is useful, even as it leaves much out and is in some ways inaccurate.

Making judgments about theories and tools, then, comes down to a practical consideration: will it help me get where I am trying to go?

We can broaden this way of thinking to transcend science. It is, in fact, an allegory for functional politics.

One of us might see municipal government as the go-to resource for addressing community needs, while the other might view municipal government, and government more generally, as something to be utilized only when there aren’t any viable alternatives. That will lead to persistent and deep philosophical differences about policy, but it need not prevent us from coming to shared decisions. If faced with preparing for and responding to the impact of a tropical storm or hurricane, we might both readily agree to pull from reserves to fund staff overtime and buy or rent additional equipment. We might describe our decision processes differently, but make the same decision.

The political culture of recent years, especially as manifested in this election cycle, seems to encourage us to think in terms of ultimate truths about society and about politics. That’s not wrong; the fundamentals matter and have a place in our public discourse. We have differences and we should feel comfortable being honest about them.

But differences do not necessarily translate into ascriptions of right and wrong, let alone of good and bad.

Most of the business of governing is more nuanced than these titanic clashes over meaning and destiny. We might disagree about what defines American greatness and still work together on those elements of our competing visions that overlap. Indeed, given the pluralistic society that is ours, we must find a way to cooperate, or we will be unable to accomplish anything toward any of our visions of the future.

The simple fact is that we, as a society, are not in agreement about some very fundamental things. That’s just reality. Our political ‘types’ differ; our ideological ‘needs’ are fed by different things.

Denying that we differ is to live in a fantasy. Asserting that those differences reflect fundamental flaws in some group (however that group is defined) is a formula for enduring and destructive conflict.

What my recent training has reinforced is a different perspective on difference. Rather than judging, we should seek to learn from those who are different. Their perspective, even when profoundly inconsistent with ours, can inform ours, help us better understand why we believe what we believe and do what we do. Such openness makes us stronger . . . not sell outs.

For most of us, the point of having ideas about politics and government isn’t to paint a fascinating picture of a utopian society. It is to know what to do, and how to do it, in the public realm.

Other ideas, other theories, can help ground our own ideas in the diverse reality of American society. They can make our efforts more effective, teaching us to respond to realities we did not appreciate before.

But it starts with accepting the reality of difference. And it requires withholding judgment in favor of listening and learning.

Pretty old school stuff.

I think it’s time we all went back to that school.