Henry David Thoreau was watching wires being strung near his home in Walden. He inquired of the men putting up the lines about what was going it. They explained that it was a result of a new invention called the telegraph and that with it the people in Maine could communicate with the people in Florida.
Thoreau’s reply: “But what if the people in Maine have nothing to say to the people in Florida?”
Thoreau’s whimsical response encapsulates one of the greatest problems of our day, and that is the seeming inability of people of opposing viewpoints to dialogue.
It would seem that people on the left have nothing to say to people on the right; that Republicans have nothing to say to Democrats; that Baby Boomers have little to say to Gen Y (or vica versa).
“But wait!” you say, “all of those parties are saying a great deal!”
Yes, you are right. But they are saying it to themselves.
Labeling, name calling, provocations, accusations and belittling are not a means of communicating with the other person or party, but a way of bolstering your standing with those who already agree. These are techniques of the exclamation point that don’t increase understanding but do increase polarization.
Political pundits use humor to point out what’s funny and sometimes what is wrong with a politician’s way of thinking, but it isn’t dialogue. There is no attempt to engage the other person to understand him or her better, to make one better understood or find common ground.
If you really have something to say to someone in Maine or in Florida, you must be willing to engage them, not just shout at them. You must respect them enough to understand them even if you don’t agree with them. You need to focus on clarifying the content of the communication, not the demeaning the character of the other party.
When people really have something to say to each other (rather than just themselves) they communicate far differently than is commonly observed in the discourse of the day.