While we have a corporeal existence, what makes us unique individuals are our communications, perceptions, beliefs, values, and memories. We send messages based upon our perceptions, which in turn are shaped by our beliefs, values, and memories. Our disagreements are often rooted in different sets of beliefs and values, which are derived from different types of experiences. What makes conflicts difficult to resolve is often that people’s fundamental beliefs and values are at odds or seem to be at odds. We observe this most clearly when different groups of people perceive the same basic set of “facts” differently. Last week, if you watched the Republican and Democrat debates, you saw a good example of this phenomena.
In the Republican debate, there were some internal squabbles, but everyone on the stage seemed to agree with a number of views about the country’s state-of-affairs. First, all seemed to agree that President Obama was handling ISIS and the terrorist threat badly. According to their beliefs, the American people are justifiably scared about the possibility of additional, more devastating attacks. The president, several argued, should project America’s strength more forcefully. (Ted Cruz scared me when he talked about never again allowing pictures of American sailors on their knees to be shown. The sailors, if you missed the news, strayed into Iranian waters and were released soon after the pictures were taken.) Second, the American economy, the Republican candidates contended, is in bad shape. The Obama administration does not know how to negotiate with its foreign trade partners. Third, the immigration system is totally broken. Our borders are porous, and those who enter illegally are probably dangerous. Fourth, the government needs to be shrunk and stop over-regulating businesses. Finally, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may look different, but they are one and the same. Obama is a disaster, but electing Hilary Clinton as president would be a catastrophe.
Both Republicans and Democrats live in the same country. However, the Democratic presidential candidates see America and the world quite differently. First, the Democrats argue that the economy has been steadily improving. Jobs have been created, they indicated. The problem with the economy is wealth inequality. The middle class is shrinking while the rich are getting richer. Second, it’s not the case that the government needs to shrink, it needs to grow. In health care, for example, the states should all embrace the Affordable Care Act and eventually move to a single-payer system (according to Bernie Sanders). Third, while Clinton attacked Sanders for his voting record on gun control, both seem to agree that there should be more regulation of guns. Fourth, the Democrats seem to agree, at least to some extent, that Wall Street and the lobbyists’ money corrupts government. Finally, the Democrats see climate change and race relations as big problems that need to be priorities in the next administration.
How do the candidates see Obama’s presidency? The Republicans portray him as being one of the worst presidents ever. He leads from behind. Instead of being strong, he is aloof and arrogant. He violates the Constitution regularly. Obama wants to take away people’s guns. He gives too much away when he negotiates with other countries. His inaction encourages our enemies.
Obama must have a twin because the Democrats see an entirely different man. Obama saved the economy from collapse during the Great Recession. He ended the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he wisely avoids major troop deployment in Syria. President Obama captured Bin Laden and has killed many terrorists using drones. He spearheaded major health care reforms, encouraged the development of alternative energy sources, halted the development of nuclear missiles in Iran, and led the global efforts on reducing carbon dioxide. He is a nice guy having to take executive action because of the crazies in the Houses of representatives.
We are quick to judge people. We perceive those we don’t like as if they had horns; they become devils who do nothing right. People we like get halos and can do no wrong. If we are not careful, we see everything through lenses that only allow the light to pass that we wish to see. In politics, it’s easy to see the power of perception, but our filters are also at work in love, friendships, and business relationships. This is polarizing. What’s the solution? Take two steps. One, try to evaluate issues and people’s behaviors in isolation. Be slow to generalize. Two, be a good listener. Keep an open mind and try to see the other person’s point of view. If we all take these two steps, we’ll be better informed when we walk to the voting booth and we may have better relationships as well.
We can not walk away from having our perceptions shaped by our beliefs and values. Democrats and Republicans will never walk hand in hand. But, our beliefs and values can be changed by our perceptions, if we keep an open mind and hear, really listen to, those we disagree with.