Silos and Bridges

While teaching a short course for older adults, many of them newcomers, in South Carolina government,  I invited them to turn in questions at the end of the first class and I would try to answer them in the following week’s class. I only got two—one for explaining an issue in education funding, which I am always happy to do.  The other one was quite different. The writer wanted to know how to participate in government as a blue person in a red state. Interestingly, the same day, a friend who shares my political views got yet another forwarded screed

So as I formulated my responses to  the student and the friend, drawing on my own many decades of experience as a transplanted Connecticut Yankee, I thought it would be worth sharing with my readers. While I am thinking from blue to red, it works equally well the other way if you happen to be a more conservative reader of my blog.

I have done a lot of public policy work.  Education and advocacy through the League of Women Votes. Testifying at legislative hearings. Collaborating in research with various agencies such as the Department of Revenue, the State Department of Education and the county and municipal an school boards associations. I have actually held public office as a city council member and have testified as an expert witness in a couple of disputed cases regarding education funding.  I was the most persistently center-left member of a pretty conservative academic department for 30 years. I live in a retirement community where those of a more center-left persuasion are a minority.

Friend first. I told her she was being witnessed to (a fine Southern religious term!) by this person and it was not only appropriate but obligatory to witness back. (I have had to do that with a family member who saw religion quite differently, and after that reciprocal witnessing, we remained close until his death two years ago.)  Silence is so often interpreted as agreement.  No need to be hostile. Say thank you for sharing your views and let me forward a column by someone who more closely reflects mine, The correspondent closed the subject with “I guess we will have to agree to disagree” but I’m betting she won’t be sharing any more.

So that’s one strategy: claim your silo, witness but be pleasant about it.  What else can we do?

  1. Find your people. There are lots of communities ranging from churches and bridge clubs and book clubs to neighborhoods and sailing clubs and amateur sports.  Eventually you will discern those whose leanings, political, religious, or philosophical, are more akin to yours.  That’s your silo, the place where you keep the food that gives you affirmation and support.  Silos have a role to play, but don’t be Rapunzel.  Let down your hair, cross a bridge, be in contact with people who think differently. Get involved in the community in ways that are collaborative rater than competitive. I know that my six colleagues as poll workers last November came from a variety of perspectives, but it had no bearing on the oath we took to conduct the election according to the rules and help people participate in their government according to their own values and priorities.  Serve on a board or commission, help build a Habitat House or rescue neglected animals, tutor a child.   Neither politics nor religion has a monopoly on making the world a better place.
  2. As for these other people living in different silos, be always mindful that they are more than their politics and/or religion.  They may share your enthusiasm for sailing, or quilting, or medieval history, or football or gardening or hiking.  Get to know the rest of them that isn’t politics. Learn to appreciate one another as human beings on the same journey through life.
  3. Find ideas on the other side that you can at least partially affirm, or common ground.  Often you will find that you have the same objective but different ways of achieving it.  As Stephen Covey would say, begin with the end in mind.  What are you trying to do with this law, this ruling, this policy? Is there another, better, more equitable and efficient way of getting the desired result? How can we combat homelessness, drugs, or violence in ways that are respectful of people’s needs, people’s rights, compassion, incentives, justice?   
  4. If you are left, learn to attack (an argument, not a person) from the right. If you are right, attack from the left. I once got into a discussion with one of my more right wing colleagues about requiring internet/catalog firms to collect state sales tax.  Oh, he said, you just want to raise taxes. Not at all, I replied. Cut the tax rate if it raises too much money.  I just want a level playing field between Main Street merchants who have to collect the tax while their state governments have to exempt their out of state competitors.  It’s not just unfair, it’s inefficient. (In case you ever get into an argument with an economist, you can always win by pointing out that his or her proposal is inefficient, the most grievous sin an economist can commit.) If you are the right wing person, attack the position from the left, invoking equity and compassion
  5. Find out what the other side is thinking, and try to understand their reasoning. If you are on the right of center, commit to watching MSNBS once a week.  If you are left, Watch Fox News or read the Wall Stret Journal. If you read any editorial columnists, don’t limit yourself to Eugene Robinson and Jennifer Rubin who will reinforce your thinking; check out Hugh Hewitt and Marc Thiessen for a contrary view.
  6. Get to know your legislators and public officials and find issues on which you can speak from authority or experience and bring about limited change. Tell stories—they are more effective than abstract arguments or statistics. But do b sure you have the facts.  Invite them to explain their position and listen thoughtfully.
  7. Finally, remember that we should not succumb to either optimism (this too shall pass, technology will save us…) or pessimism (we are going to hell in a handbasket and nothing I can do will make any difference).  Both optimists and pessimists are failing to exercise their free will on matters that they care about.  Theologian Joanna Macy tells us that the only appropriate attitude is active hope, the virtue that lies halfway between optimism and pessimism. Active hope calls us to define what we hope for and find ways to actively work to make it happen.  What do you care about, and what are you going to do about it? In the process of defining your passion, your concern, your hope, and developing strategies you can employ individually or as part of a group or as a citizen, voter, or elected official, you will find your tribe and can invite them for a  visit inside your silo!