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Sue Lani Madsen: Key to finding common ground is learning to argue without inflicting mortal wounds

Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Two weeks ago, this column highlighted the post-Columbine Rachel’s Challenge and Sandy Hook Promise programs. Both organizations offer evidence-based training to teachers and school staff, with proven effectiveness. They focus on intercepting self-destructive young people before they turn into school shooters or suicide statistics by creating school cultures of connectedness.

The positive response was uplifting, especially from the teachers who see lonely, isolated children in their classrooms every day. Humans are designed for connection. It is essential not only for individuals and schools but for healthy communities.

Then there were the critics on social media insisting any discussion about solutions to prevent school shooting short of keeping the focus on more gun control was a dodge. Community members not focused on gun control must be do-nothings “showing you their awful hearts” and fertilizing a “politics of sick zealotry.” And trying to find a way to move forward was met with “I don’t believe in common ground with do-nothings.”

It reminded me of another conversation-stopping moment at a small group gathered to build community over coffee. A proud progressive arrived late, identified me as a conservative, and after rebuffing my offered hand of friendship, said “I don’t want you in my world.”

Not exactly an invitation to connect. Where do you go after a comment like that? It’s not just schools facing the hard work to build a culture of connectedness. It’s a need that stretches from the coffeehouse to Congress.

This past week, a bipartisan delegation of about 30 members of Congress stopped to lay a wreath at the location where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 50 years ago. They were part of an annual pilgrimage to key sites from the civil rights era of the 1960s, organized by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.; Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.; and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. The old Lorraine Motel in Memphis where the murder occurred has since been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum. A group of Spokane-area community leaders joined Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers on the trip, continuing an opportunity to build common ground that began with local dinners.

And inevitably, several participants, including McMorris Rodgers, were attacked with accusations of bad faith and worse character by those who deny common ground and see manipulative motives everywhere.

No partisan camp is free of sanctimony or intellectual dishonesty. We readily convince ourselves that our criticism is accurate and our motives are pure, unlike those other people we don’t want to talk to and certainly don’t want to listen to, those political zealots of a different tribe we want to isolate in their own separate world.

The civil rights struggle should have taught us that separation does not build healthy communities. It’s a lesson we have to keep learning 50 years after King’s death.

Building connections means taking the time to understand another’s perspective without denying your own. It requires following the same rule the Washington Legislature imposes imperfectly on itself: “A member shall confine all remarks to the question under debate and avoid personalities. No member shall impugn the motive of any member’s vote or argument.”

In other words, assume others mean well no matter how misguided or ill-informed their remarks sound to your ears. Be ready to explain your point of view, which will necessarily be different based on different life experiences and insights. Focus on sharing information. And remember to listen. That’s the tough part. There’s no legislative rule about sincerely listening.

Standing on common ground doesn’t mean withholding comment or never disagreeing. Stifling sincerely held beliefs and ignoring differences isn’t healthy for any relationship, in a marriage or in a community. The key to surviving for the long term is learning to argue without inflicting mortal wounds with words, and learning what’s not worth arguing about. Politics will never be conflict-free, but we have to believe there are common goals or there’s no hope.

Nobody wants to read about another act of mass public violence. Nobody. We can build on that common ground by doing what is simultaneously the easiest and the hardest thing to do – personally changing the culture one cup of coffee and one connection at a time.

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