Lately in Portland, OR, I have seen a raging and fairly uncivil debate about whether or not to fluoridate the city’s famously high-quality water from the Bull Run Reservoir.
For me, it has put a spotlight on the fascinating and fundamentally not-so-funny inability of americans to have adult conversations about points of disagreement. Rarely have I been able to “tell my story” connected to a contentious issue and hear it received respectfully.
Most interestingly, the fluoride debate has created divisions down the middle of groups which mainstream politic life sees as contiguous. If you subscribe to the mythical “left/right”, “progressive/conservative” divide as a useful way to think about public opinion – and I should mention here that I most emphatically do not subscribe to this – then you will feel befuddled to hear that progressives are yelling at each other, accusing each other of wielding rich white privilege. You’ll also hear cries of “tin-foil hats”, “pseudo-science”, and “tea-party thinking”.
In one exchange with a friend (also a tracker for goodness sake!), after his characterization of anti-fluoride folks this way (I am voting against fluoride), I piped up to protest his description of me, my family, local native and minority groups that also encourage voters to vote against fluoridation.
“Show me peer-reviewed science, ” he said.
“How will showing you more science change your disrespect of my differing opinion? Besides, this issue may concern interpretation of science and differing values, not the science itself,” I reply.
“I’m still waiting for the peer-reviewed science.”
And the conversation ended before it had ever begun.
For me, again, this puts the spotlight squarely where I’ve wanted it all along. For my friends and family who identify as “progressive”, I’ve noticed that for them the “other side” (conservative, GOP, whatever) has abandoned science for religion or conspiracy theory – they won’t think rationally, can’t reason on their own. Yet now that the left-leaning group has split in two…progressives (I might accidentally fall under this label, though I don’t consider myself one) point their fingers at each other and fire away with the same language.
This should not come across as new news. I love this situation because it highlights the problem – a problem that has always rested within our control. I can choose to create a space for conversation, or I can choose to create a space for combat. Note I don’t cast this as “conflict vs. agreement” – all life comes from conflict, from different perspectives. But what do we do with those? We marry them! Interbreed them! Tell our stories to each other, ask questions, listen generously.
This has left us so completely that we seem to hardly remember it. And the blame falls on all of us, me included. How often do we fiercely protect a space for conversation? How often to we choose instead to jump in with the right solution, the correct perspective, or a sneering condescension?
One caveat: don’t try to have conversations with people without a capacity for empathy and connection. Identify and avoid them as early and often as possible. However, most of the time your difference of opinion, and not a difference in neurobiology, will lie at the center of why you feel so dissatisfied with your interaction.