For Readers Who Challenge My Thinking

Dr. Shrewsbury

Graduating from Concord College, with 
Dr. Shrewsbury, who always challenged me to think

Two days ago my blog took a toddler’s step toward what I hoped it would be when I launched this site two years ago:  a place where people of good faith could disagree in a way that encourages further discussion.

One of my loyal readers challenged my thinking and followed it up with a brief personal story about why she disagreed.  In her first sentence she said, “I’ve read your blog three times and for the first time, it doesn’t say anything for me.”

Because she has responded before, I could picture her, sitting in front of her computer, staring at the screen in disappointment. She is just the kind of reader I want—one who is willing to think hard about complex issues and to say that she disagrees—to say why, to speak civilly. I wondered whether I’d lost her as a reader, and I knew I’d be sorrowful if I had. She shares many of my political beliefs—beliefs that have rarely been represented in Congress in recent years.

I believe with all my heart and mind and soul and strength that if we can’t find a way to encourage civil discussion among good people with differing views, we are never going to make progress in dealing with the issues that face us. I fervently want to encourage the people who agree with me, but I also want to reach those who disagree with me.

I’m a teacher of language, and I know that little change happens when we speak to the hearts and minds only of those who agree with us. But all along, my dilemma has been how to address an audience that disagrees with me  without sounding wishy-washy, flip-floppish, spineless to those who generally agree with my views.

Like my reader, I’m disgusted with how our government is being controlled by wealth and special interests. Like her, I believe that many of the ordinary citizens who are voting with the likes of Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and the Koch brothers are doing so with little critical thought. These people believe the worst of the poor. They believe that if you aren’t successful in America, then you must be lazy or a drug addict or both. They believe that compromise is anathema. And the special interests have their number—and know exactly how to push them over the ledge into the abyss of irrational thought.

But I firmly believe that there aren’t enough of these people to sway an election. These days, for all the noise on both sides of the aisle, elections turn on the undecided voters that I understand so well.

I often struggle with how to take a firm stance when I hear a kernel of truth in complaints about my side. Justifiably, conservatives take offense when liberals dismiss them as stupid and incapable of critical thought. This week conservative columnist Michael Gerson wrote about this in the Washington Post:

This reflects a deeper tension within progressivism — working itself out for more than a century — between a belief in democracy and a faith in expertise. Progressives originally assumed the people would choose to be ruled by experts — that more direct democracy would lead to more professional administration. But that now seems politically naive. So progressive elites are left believing that the people are stupid and must be managed, like everything else, in the public interest.

I tried to wade through all this yesterday to decide on a direction for future blogs. I don’t want to lose the people who agree with me. Myriad sites out there speak to them, agree with them, affirm their view of the world. And the same is true of the other side. Sites that play to each side have thousands of followers—and commenters who are all too willing to either join them in their rage or to rage against them.

I, on the other hand, have a relatively small following. My Twitter feed consistently gets new followers who drop out as soon as I tweet a view that wonders whether the other side has something valid to say. My number of followers goes up and down like a thermometer in unpredictable D.C. weather.

So what do I do? Do I preach to the choir of my own party? Or do I give up on those who agree with me so that I can be heard by people who disagree with me?

I’m outraged about the government spending bill, for example. How can our leaders sleep at night when they ease restrictions on big banks and cut Pell grants that allow disadvantaged kids to go to college? I was one of those kids. I don’t usually resort to name-calling, but they’re cowards, every one, who use the fear of a government shutdown to further disenfranchise the poor. When, oh when, will we realize that the character of a nation is determined by the way it cares for the least among us? They ought to be ashamed, all of them, who allowed the interests of the wealthy to come at the expense of the poor.

I refuse to believe that there are no conservatives out there who are equally outraged. There must be at least some of them who went to college on Pell grants. I also refuse to believe that there are no smart people who are conservatives, none who think that the regulations on big banks are slowing down our economy. I’m not an economist.

It is for precisely that reason that we need to be able to talk with each other. If we don’t talk to each other rationally and seek to work together, then we leave the door wide open for those wealthy Americans who care only about increasing their wealth to manipulate our democracy for their own purposes.

That may mean that sometimes my own side may feel that I’ve lost my way and that I don’t speak for them. It may mean that I do my best to reach out to those on the other side, wishing that I could get more people to hear me, and that sometimes I can’t.  But I’ll keep trying.

In any case, what is the alternative? To concede my opposition to the Republicans and special interest groups as a lost cause?

It’s a luxury I can’t afford. It’s a luxury none of us who care about social justice can afford.

So where do we go from here?

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