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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

On the Other Hand

As we enter the final year of the decade and a time of year that many people reflect on changes they wish to make to improve their lives I have a thought I wanted to share. It’s no secret that the political, economic, and social divide in our world is growing wider and more dangerous to navigate. The tectonic pressure exerted by a legacy of repressive policies and the native desire of people everywhere to secure both personal freedoms and sustainable circumstances has caused a tension that surely must end in a dramatic and explosive outcome. I am reminded of the phrase that was used to describe the state of the world prior to the first world war: the watch spring is wound too tight.

Some who are given to dark prophetic pronouncements have forecast the current state of affairs as the biblical end times: wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes etc.—you get the idea. I admit it can feel that way at times. On the other hand, there is an energy at large calling for change that is so charged it seems to be sweeping away official resistance, albeit at a considerable loss of life and escalating conflict. I am reminded that this is often the case before a significant breakthrough.

In our own country, those who have grown passive over many years can no longer sit on the sidelines. We are all drawn into conflict by the news of the day, by the discomfort, or even disgust we feel at ‘politics as usual’ approach offered up by leaders at the national and more local levels. That unrest led to two divisive elections and promises another shortly. Rather than acting as an aspirational example for others we are more divided than ever. I suggest that our country and indeed the world has reached a level of cognitive dissonance that we have never before experienced.

As a reminder, the term cognitive dissonance is more than a pop phrase overused by media. It is a clinical condition caused by conflict in a person’s beliefs about themselves and the world in which they live. As individuals become aware of inconsistencies in their closely held views—typically against their will or when confronted by new information, they become tense, experience internal discomfort and ultimately must resolve the situation. Sometimes the cognitive break is a breakthrough—other times it is an explosive psychic break. This is the state of our world, our country and many of our citizens on all sides of the political spectrum.

There is no topic on which we cannot find legitimate cause for disagreement: gun control, climate change, healthcare, and economics to name a few but the list is nearly limitless. There is nothing new about disagreement on vital issues—what has changed is the amplification of rhetoric which media and social media in particular have brought about. Rather than encouraging dialog, our dissonance grows by the minute as those at the ends of the spectrum on each and every point of conflict huddle together seeking reinforcement for their position and relief from the discomfort they are feeling.

We are all doing a lot of talking, much of it heated, and not much listening. I submit that it is the responsibility of anyone who finds our present situation intolerable to take a different approach. Desist from registering you earnest and well -intentioned disagreement. Stop and listen to what those who offer opposing views have to say—ask questions, seek answers to how they have arrived at their view. Arm yourself with an open mind lest you slip into your own dissonant crisis, and with indisputable facts on which you can both agree.

I watched this approach play out recently on one of those hotly contested subjects, vaccination. I offer it here not to encourage a replay but to illustrate how two people were able to shape their dialog in a way that changed them from opponents to something less. Interestingly the dialog did not enter into the usual recitation of argument and counter argument. A mother who adamantly insisted on preventing her child from being vaccinated was confronted by a healthcare professional who was insistent on the necessity. You can imagine the litany of assertions raised on both sides of this debate. But in this case the usual did not transpire. Instead, the health care provider, sensitive to the earnest fear and the unexpressed but deeply felt uncertainty of the parent, indeed of all caring parents, began by establishing valence with the mother. She asked if they could agree that the rise of childhood death from preventable disease, such as measles, was something that should and could be addressed. The answer of course was yes.

Having established a point of agreement the nurse asked the mother how she thought the situation could be handled. The mother had no magic solutions—she offered up ideas such as isolating children who might be exposed to a disease but quickly admitted this was hard in practice, and having done a lot of arguably superficial research (superficial in that is was largely based on so called anti-vax internet forums and other parents who shared her views) she had some suggestions for homeopathic remedies. Rather than dismissing these ‘solutions’ the nurse asked about them and asked whether any scientific analysis had been done about their efficacy such as the mother had proffered about the dangerous substances contained in vaccines. The answer was no. The discussion might have ended here—and it would have been useful because it pointed out and sharpened the doubts that the mother already held—however deeply. In time she would be forced to confront that point of tension—either by external events or the inconsistency of her own thoughts. Given that a child’s life was at risk I would hope that no one would adopt a cavalier attitude about the importance of this debate. But the nurse understood, as a parent herself, that the mother’s motivation was not idealistic but born out of genuine concern for the welfare of her child.

What happened was what you would hope for, the mother began asking the nurse why she was not afraid to administer the vaccine to her own children. It was not a confrontational question as the two had bonded out of their mutual love for their children. Calmly and without denigrating alternate views, the nurse explained how she had gone about establishing comfort with her decision. She took on the concerns about vaccines using her training but always in the context of reminding the mother that her purpose was the same--ensuring her child’s safety.

I would like to say the mother agreed to vaccinate her child immediately--but that happens in movies not in real life. But what did happen was that the two agreed to talk again after the mother went off to think about what she had learned and to do further research. So, what’s the point you may ask—the child was still unvaccinated? I would suggest that the outcome was pre-ordained. Closely held beliefs don’t change overnight. But the seed was planted. The mother could no longer rely on slogans or rhetoric, she was forced to ask herself if she was truly doing what was best for her child. And, equally important she had established a relationship—a respectful, honest relationship with someone who held a different point of view, someone she could look to to help her think about her decision in a different way.

I offer this exchange as a model of what I wish we might encourage from every debate. Establishment of the real objective, and agreement on the legitimate concerns of all parties; listening and questioning rather than assertion of beliefs; willingness to look for unbiased sources of established fact, and respect for an outcome that may in the immediate term leave nothing changed. If we hope to ease the watch spring, we can only do so over time. Wind it further, and it will surely break.

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