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Opinion

Ideological bigotry: Are you part of the problem?

The solution: Stop preaching to your choir and reach out to the other side.

By John Renesch / August 10, 2010



San Francisco

Abraham Lincoln's famous 1858 speech emphasized "a house divided against itself cannot stand." These words come to mind as I ponder the excess divisiveness so prevalent in America today.

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We are building silos of ideologies, isolating ourselves into factions, and preaching to our choirs about the faults and defects of "the other." Each silo is suffering from "groupthink" – reinforcing its own dogma and avoiding any feedback that disagrees with the party line. At its worst, it is ideological bigotry.

This subtle form of bigotry is being promoted by extremists who compete for attention. Unless it's held in check, it could tear our nation's social fabric. We've seen that happen in other countries, where ugly rhetoric eventually turns to violence.

But we don't have to stand for it. And each of us can make a difference in our circles of influence with a simple yet profound rule for everyday communication: stop opposing what we don't like, and start proposing what we would like.

Shocking e-mails from friends

I get e-mails every week from liberal friends and conservative friends – some calling themselves libertarians, some progressives – that shock me with their vitriol and the mean-spirited nature of their commentaries. In lieu of their own compositions, some of these friends forward content that drips with sarcasm and dismissive characterizations of people with whom they disagree.

There is nothing wrong or unhealthy with contention, debate, and even argument – as long as it is in the context of respect and relationship with the other person.

Successful people realize the benefits of open discussion and debate. It often improves the outcome as both sides come to see value in the other's position. Throughout my career in business, I witnessed meetings where passionate debate rattled the walls of the boardroom but the result was a far better idea, design, or product. The superior outcome was celebrated by all.

George Washington saw this in our nation's founding. A strong advocate of having opposing sides on issues engage in debate, he recognized how this could lead to optimal outcomes. However, he was also wary of partisanship that could lead to concretized positions and suboptimal results, often a compromise to the lowest common denominator.

Healthy differences of opinion have helped America grow and prosper. Respectful contentiousness comes with citizenship in a democracy!

The diversity of ideas and cultures has proved immensely valuable in our nation's history. And both history and common sense confirm that the key is to make sure debates are about ideas, not people. That way, even after vigorous exchanges, opposing players can laugh together and leave with good-natured feelings.

But cruel words and dismissive sarcasm can damage our ties with rivals – and perhaps even friends and family. Like war without explosions, it leads to wounds that cannot be healed with a drink or a laugh.

Unless more people start insisting on respectful communications about their ideologies – their "interests" – and encourage dialogue rather than war as a means of reconciling their different interests, our society will continue to divide and fragmentize.

Take a stand

We are better than this! We can do much better in getting along with one another. Let's stand for a higher road in reconciling our differences. If we insist on perpetuating this divisiveness, humans could be added to the endangered species list.

Join me in ending the cycles of incivilities, negativity, disrespect, and insulting sarcasms. Take a stand against engaging in conversations or e-mail exchanges that perpetuate these cycles and take us all down to lower levels of human relationships.

Stop listening to it; stop repeating it; stop encouraging this pattern of divisiveness. Instead of spouting our opinions and preaching to those in our silo, let's reach out to those who have different viewpoints. Nothing will change unless we do.

John Renesch is a businessman-turned-futurist based in San Francisco, an author of several books, and an international speaker. His website is www.Renesch.com.

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