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Putting the People Back in Politics

Recently, in my hometown, of Oakes, ND, population just shy of 1,800, our community wrestled with the challenging decision of whether or not to vote through a nearly $15 million bond referendum for our school to make critical repairs to the facility. 

Today, as I sit and type these words, we are just 2 short days away from the vote. 

This happens all the time. Local communities, states, and even the country wrestle with legislation or other referendums that get decided by the collective will of the people, invoking the incredible power we each have to vote as our hearts, minds, and consciences would have us. 

The point of today’s blog post isn’t actually about whether or not our local vote passes or fails, but rather, about what I believe are the potential long-term impacts of unhealthy public discourse.

On the heels of another upcoming national election (Anyone else already feeling the angst of what’s to come? Ugh.), I guess I’m feeling like words must be shared. I mean, per usual. Part of what we do through our podcast, blog, and organization, is to challenge the status quo, encourage a more human-centered way of behaving, and ultimately, help people realize that the skills we’re talking about here are developable. Yes, I made up that word. Whatever. I meant it.

Now, here’s my caveat; because I do get it. I live in a small town in “flyover country” in a state that always votes one way; you could be asking what the hell right I have to even mention or bring these things up. 

But as a generally open-minded and open-hearted person, who actively pursues therapy to help me cope with these very challenges as my work has become more and more public in recent years, I do think there are lessons for us to consider regarding situations like what my small town has recently gone through. And I genuinely believe that if we want our country to be better, then it rests with us, the people, to freaking do better

This is why I always have been and always will be an advocate for growth—challenging personal growth that is confronting, hard, and downright painful at times. 

When we get better, everything gets better. Full stop. I needed to add that for emphasis. The proper punctuation seemed insufficient.

This conversation isn’t about who is right (because in matters of politics, there actually will always be differences…and ain’t that grand?!?!) but this is about what is right. 

How we treat other humans matters. 

In the course of public discourse, whether the topics being discussed are hyper-local like our recent school board vote, or national, like choosing the President of the United States, the only way our freedom rings is if we actually believe this. 

And then, walk it out in real life. 

So, I’d like to share some of my big feelings related to how I’ve seen people treat one another locally and broaden this out a bit, because the truth is, the further removed we get from the humans we disagree with, the faster and more slippery this slope of crappy behavior towards others becomes.

It becomes easy to dislike people we’ve never met, especially from behind a keyboard. 

If this kind of behavior can and does occur on a local level in a small town where we literally do run into one another again after saying awful things on social media, without the acknowledgment of its breaking down of the fundamental fabric that makes a community work, then how in the hell are we ever going to manage to shift things on a bigger scale?

I’m not demonizing the people in these situations; I’m sharing my observations and the meaning-making regarding it.

Ultimately, this is an invitation to consider the long-term impacts of people not employing fundamental people skills to create better outcomes.

I’m a passionate person. I have, on more than one occasion, behaved in a way or spoken words that I’m not particularly proud of. I have done what I can to make repairs with the people involved, and the hard truth is, that they don’t have to accept said efforts.

Once words are spoken, they can’t be taken back and sometimes, the rift created can’t be repaired. 

So, my hope in sharing these thoughts and truly, appeals to a nobler motive here, aren’t to demonstrate that I’m on some sort of a high horse. I’m not. I struggle just as much as the next person with how to navigate these kinds of situations, but I think I’ve landed on a few very particular human-centered ideas that if anyone commits to doing at all, that impact will be felt. And things will shift. 

Call me Pollyanna. Call me a ridiculous optimist. Call me foolish. Call me silly. Call me whatever you want.

I genuinely believe that the way forward for our homes, our communities, and our country, is through people. 

And I want us to be better. 

So with that, here are five things to do, right now, with what you have, right where you’re at to make your community better. 

  1. Notice and call out the use of labels.  

You would think as I say this that this is an obvious thing we shouldn't do; we were taught in grade school not to call names. But today? It's a shortcut to making our point faster.

If we can lump an entire group of people together to clarify our point of view, we will. There may even be times when this distinction is helpful; I'd like to submit that in most cases, all it does is take the individual out of the conversation, diluting and weakening any argument to be made.

Democrats v. Republicans. "Yes" voters v. "No" voters. Conservatives v. Liberals. Patriots v. The "Woke" Left. Catholics v. All Other Christians. (C'mon...that was kind of funny.)

It's so damn tempting to put people in buckets and categories; they're easier to deal with that way. It's most certainly true.

But the danger of labeling is that we stop viewing them as people or as humans with their own experiences, beliefs, and ideas. We create a broad categorization that leads to assumptions at best and dehumanization at worst.

Listen for this. Once you start listening for it, you will hear it, literally, everywhere.

First and foremost, try to avoid using labels yourself. Secondly, when you hear someone doing it, and you're in a position to do something about it, simply, with love and grace, suggest that perhaps, the label is too limiting.

Ask a few more questions (like the ones below) and offer a lens of humanity towards the person/people in question.

What do I really know about the person I'm dealing with? What questions might help me better isolate their personal opinion? When I call "them" (insert label), what assumptions am I making about them? How could I get beyond this label and get to know them better, personally?

2. Employ the golden rule.

Yes, again, we were first introduced to the notion of "Do unto others as you would have done unto you" early in our lives, but it's insane how quickly we forget when we feel we're in the "right".

Maybe around here, a better frame is to remind people "Do unto others as you would have done to your children" because that seems to hit home. (This is an entirely separate issue in itself because our lack of self-esteem and self-love that leads to a healthy inner life and overall emotional and intellectual well-being is a thing.) But hey, if imagining your kid standing in front of you is the thing that gives you pause or makes you take a deep breath before being a jerk, whatever works, friend.

Try asking: What do you know about what the person standing in front of you might be going through? What's the kindest and most gracious way to deliver your message? What would happen if you didn't say what's on your mind at all? What assumptions are you making?

3. Consider the implications of selective rights and privileges.

If there was ever an idea that I worry about saying out loud it's this one...

We can't advocate for our rights and beliefs without affording everyone else the same opportunity.

I continue to be surprised and kind of horrified by how easy it seems for people to fight hard for their personal beliefs, all in the name of freedom and Patriotism, while at the same time, publicly, through their words and actions, blatantly suggesting others should not have the same rights.

It's mind-blowing to me and frankly, it's hypocrisy at its finest.

This is a highly nuanced topic and there's not enough time or words to share in this kind of venue to do it justice.

I have seen this play out locally more times than I can count so at a minimum, it's something to watch for and to realize when we might be caught in it ourselves.

What if you asked: In what ways, if any, does what I'm fighting for take away from someone else? How might I consider other people in what I'm fighting for? In what ways, if any, is what I'm fighting for selective or exclusive?

4. Beware the echo chambers.

With our local school board vote, I definitely saw this happening.

Instead of intentionally going to the places and people that think differently from them, I saw people cutting off those people (who before this heated topic of discussion, were friends, mind you) so they didn't have to hear their "rhetoric".

I don't know where this idea that the willingness to listen to and hold differing perspectives makes a person "weak" came from, but it's utter bullshit.

If your ideas and beliefs are strong and unflinching, then exposing yourself to people who are different from you shouldn't feel threatening at all.

Echo chambers occur when we shut ourselves off from people who think and feel differently than we do, thereby reinforcing our own thoughts and beliefs.

In fact, of all the things human beings are capable of doing, changing our minds when presented with new information, is one of our most powerful attributes.

If you never source new information, nothing will change.

To combat echo chambers in your life, ask: Where do you get your information? How might you put yourself in the way of people who live, think, and believe differently from you? What might you gain from actively broadening your perspective a bit?

5. Make repairs.

This last idea is simply about what to do when you step in it; if you're breathing and alive, you will.

This skill goes so far beyond conflict management, and truly, lets us tap into the care and compassion we have to hold for someone we've hurt, even if the intention to hurt them wasn't there.

Intention does matter, but ultimately, if someone expresses that we've hurt them, we ought to believe them. Or, if we continue to reflect on a situation where we wished we'd handled something differently, there might be an opportunity for repair.

Go to the person.

Be humble. Be gracious. Own your role. Apologize.

None of these things make us weak.

They demonstrate a true ability to put others ahead of ourselves and that's the literal definition of having a servant's heart.

Ask: What situations exist that you could repair? What role did you play in the last conflict you encountered and how might you go about owning that with the person involved? Who needs your grace today, and how might you show it to them?

So there you have it. Five ideas that are fundamental to the human experience.

Now, I know.

The people who are likely to need this information the most, most likely won't be the ones to read it.

But if you've read to the end of this thing, you care. I know you do. And if those of us who care don't step up now, the future of our communities is at stake.

We can turn up the "heat" slowly, one by one, with every interaction, using these fundamental people skills to create a world more like what we want to live in.

Moreover, as we consider how to get "good" people to run for public office, we, the public, have to be the kind of constituents worthy of good people representing us.

Locally, there's an actual threat to a person's livelihood as a local business owner if they take a public position, such as City Council or the School Board, and have to wrestle with challenging topics.

The "public" is unforgiving, unrelenting, and has the memory of an elephant.

If we continue to behave this way, the only people left to run for public positions will be people without a shred of empathy; the kind of people who say and mean "I don't give a shit what you say about me".

That terrifies me.

I don't want our public officials to be "soft" and to take things personally, but the ability to operate with compassion and critical thinking is not something to snub our noses at.

The "public" is people.

And people need empathy.

We are humans, after all.


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