Posts Tagged ‘immigration’

How Do You Come to Your Opinions?

Think of a controversial issue in the news. More likely than not, you’ve already formed opinions about it.

How did you come to those opinions?

The question keeps arising for me this month, thanks to conversations about the complex of issues surrounding violence, guns, terrorism, and Islam. Several of my “conversation partners” are people with whom I vehemently disagree; in a couple of cases their opinions are repugnant to me. If I had encountered their thoughts in passing—in a river of Facebook comments, in a tweet, in a casual remark—I might have dismissed them out of hand.

With one fellow in particular, however—an ardent anti-immigrationist who even questions the value of diversity for human community—the conversation has taken a different turn. The more he explains about his belief, the more I see how much thought he has put into it. He makes connections I never would have considered. (Who sees rigid controls on immigration as a justice issue for low-income people? He does.) He cites research. Some of his language implies that personal circumstances might fuel his ideas.

By instinct, I am a complete fruitcake on immigration. I think we should let ‘em all in. Everybody. Carte blanche. No exceptions. Or at least that should be our starting point. In that context, the conversation we’ve had has had a substantial effect. No, I am not persuaded to convert to this fellow’s opinions. But the dialogue with him has persuaded me that my conviction needs work. Perhaps a lot of work.

Seeing how he came to his opinions made the difference.

So what’s the takeaway here? Allow me to come at it in a roundabout way. It has to do, in a sense, with the power of stories.

The dialogue field is big on storytelling. When people tell their stories, we see their humanity. We can empathize with them. Storytelling takes dialogue away from the abstractions that dominate our media landscape and pushes it into context and nuance. We can start to see, in many cases, how a reasonable person might just arrive at the opinion that gives us the shivers.

What I’m wondering is whether how did you come to your opinions?—which is an invitation to tell another type of story—may also allow us to filter out the media noise.

Here’s what I mean. If I express an opinion that sounds ripped from the media headlines, and you ask how did you come to your opinion? it challenges me to probe deeper, to form and own an opinion that is more authentically mine. If I express an opinion with greater depth, your question how did you come to your opinion? encourages me to reveal that depth and (I hope) inspire you to reflect on it and respond in kind. If I’ve based my opinions on sources you find questionable, and you ask how did you come to your opinion? it allows us to go well beyond the issue at hand and into deeper questions of media and knowledge and trust.

Whatever the case, we begin to enter a dialogue and reflection that exposes our opinions to the thinking of our dialogue partner. That in turn can shape our opinions and, hopefully, bring them closer to the truth, or the heart of the matter. At the same time, we forge the type of connections that dialogue is famous for making.

Best of all, that simple question opens a door for us to leave those scripted catchphrases and simplistic media headlines far behind. We’re liberated from the “box” of those sound bites, which so often set the parameters of debate in the public square. Instead, the question moves us outside the box, and we van hear and think and feel for ourselves.

It might even be a good question for self-reflection. How do you come to your opinions? And how might this question help you make progress with that person who makes your blood boil?




Why Does Immigration Matter TO YOU?

I asked myself this question while journaling last week. I did not expect the wild ride through my unconscious that followed.

The question has become central for me because I find myself enraged at people on the other side of the debate: the folks who want to build a wall on the Mexican border, or block Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., or press for English-only policies. That persistent rage feels corrosive to my soul, like something I need to work through.

The odd thing is that immigration issues don’t really make an impact on my daily life, at least not on a visceral level. My list of friends is rather thin on people from other countries, and none of them plan on immigrating. My part of the U.S. is not really a magnet for immigrants, as (for instance) California and the Southwest are.

In short, my rage is all out of proportion to the thing that’s triggering it. Over the years, I’ve learned to see that and ask, “What’s going on here?”

Asking that question led me to the question in the title. Why does immigration matter to me?

I started exploring the question in my journal, and it didn’t take long for all hell to break loose. My stance on immigration quickly led to my passion for welcoming everyone carte blanche into my life. That, in turn, pulled me into a whole multitude of issues around loss and grief that I have yet to fully understand. Trust me, they are large issues.

I haven’t come close to revisiting them at this point, one week later. I am not surprised, however, to discover that my iron grip on my beliefs—and the rage that accompanies it—have relaxed a bit.

Next, I imagined putting the same question to a relative who is particularly strident about immigration. I reviewed what I knew of her life situation, talked it over with my wife, and tried to gain an “empathic glimpse.” Sure enough, the answers to “why is immigration important to her?” came quickly: the healthcare benefits that her neighborhood’s immigrants can access and she can’t; the language barriers that make her life difficult because she doesn’t speak Spanish; the economic insecurity she lives with day by day.

Suddenly she seemed more, well, human. Her situation deserved some sympathy (while taking nothing away from the situation of the immigrants themselves). I had a chance, at least, of not letting this issue damage our relationship.

So now I’m wondering: what if we asked that “to you” question regularly, not only of others but, much more important, of ourselves? What if, instead of snapping off a superficial, abstract answer, we slowed down our lives and our hearts enough to consider the question in greater depth? How might the insights we uncover soften the way we approach our adversaries? Might we glimpse the humanity and perhaps the suffering behind their positions?

Is this sufficient for policymaking on an organizational level? Of course not. But I would submit that it is necessary. Asking this question, and listening for the answers, enable us to bring our whole selves to the issue at hand: not just our cerebral sides but our hearts, our shadow sides, everything that might inform a wise (not just a rational) decision.

Have you asked this question of yourself—on any issue? What happened? Feel free to share here.

When Grey’s Anatomy Trumps the President

If you were channel surfing in the U.S. last Thursday evening, you might have caught Grey’s Anatomy on ABC or Bones on FOX. It’s what you’d expect on Thursday, right?

Not this past Thursday. Right around the time Bones and Booth were assessing their umpteenth skeletal murder victim, a major presidential announcement was taking place. On the Big Four networks—ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC—it was nowhere to be seen.

What gives?

Americans have grown up with the image of presidents plastered all over their TV screens for reasons both pivotal and not so pivotal. This one clearly falls into the pivotal category: congressional Republicans are predicting dire consequences, and the resulting rift may determine whether the U.S. government gets anything done in the next two years.

If there’s sound reasoning behind the decision not to air the President’s speech, you won’t hear it from the networks. All of them have declined comment. So let’s take a look at some possible explanations:

  1. It was already on Facebook. Media executives may have reasoned that the President’s Facebook video, released on Wednesday, made his Thursday night address redundant. But it’s unlikely: the Facebook video was only 59 seconds long and laid out no specifics.
  2. The networks were obfuscating for Obama or showing their preference for Republicans. Both are variants of the age-old claim of media bias. The fact that opposing pundits see opposing biases in the same event speaks volumes about this alternative. (I wrote about “media bias” more extensively in Chapter 3 of my book.)
  3. It’s sweeps monththe regular period during which networks estimate viewership and, as a result, set local ad rates for the coming months. The sweeps explanation strikes me as both entirely possible and disturbing: in this one instance, at least, the networks that have historically played a major role in delivering news opted for profit over public service.
  4. It’s complicated. This is a variation of points 1 and 2. As disturbing as I find the networks’ decision, it would have been far worse in, say, 1973, when the Big Three networks were the dominant purveyors of news. With the media landscape so fragmented, and Americans getting their news from a myriad of platforms, perhaps the networks decided the impact of their decisions would be relatively minor, shoving sweeps month to the fore.
  5. Univision will take care of it. I hesitate to even mention this one, because it is ugly. I don’t want to believe that any network executive might have said, or thought, “Hey, immigration is a Latino issue, so let ‘their’ network handle it.” To the extent that anyone thought this, it speaks to the persistent “us and them” orientation that entrenches our horrifying racial and ethnic divides.

I am not sure what the real explanation is. I do think, though, that network news still carries some obligation to the public trust—which means the networks owe us an explanation. How disappointing that they have chosen not to provide it.

Who Gets to Come to the Dialogue?

A while back, an old friend upbraided me for imagining a dialogue on immigration. As she saw it, I was ruminating on an issue for which, in her words, I “had no dog in this hunt.”

At the time, I thought she made a good point, but now I’m not so sure. Do we need a personal stake in an issue to reflect on it openly? How much of a stake do we need?

First, to state the obvious: Those who have an intensely personal stake in an issue deserve a privileged place at the dialogue table. They live the issue, after all. The rest of us are under obligation to listen, and listen intently, to their stories. Sorting through Arizona’s immigration law without Arizonans at the table, for example, would be as arrogant as it is ridiculous.

But if we take that as the whole truth—“all those with no dog in this hunt, stay out”—we run into problems. Here’s an example: My daughter is an adult. I have no direct connection with the local school system anymore. Does that mean I should stay away from Board of Education budget meetings? What if my personal stake lies in the importance of educational excellence for the future of our (pick one: town/ nation/planet)? Is that really a personal stake?

Matters of war and peace are even stickier. The U.S. government pays little, if any, attention to the voices of those who would be combatants—let alone their families—when deciding whether to go to war. That is a travesty, and peace advocates rightly raise the issue in times of conflict. But what about the foreign policy expert, with no loved one eligible for combat, who can articulate the (possibly legitimate) geopolitical reasons for a particular war? OK, perhaps that’s self-evident. But what about the ordinary Joe whose religion proscribes the use of force in any situation? Should anyone care what he or his religion thinks?

Yes, I think they should. Wisdom can come from anywhere. We don’t know who carries the wisdom that a dialogue needs until we have that dialogue. If we apply “no dog in this hunt” rigidly—excluding those without a stake, or even including them but treating their views lightly—we risk missing the perspective that could make all the difference.

Logistically, of course, we can’t include everyone in every dialogue. And circumstances will define the number of people we can or should include in every situation. When the Public Conversations Project convened a long-running dialogue on abortion, it was important to keep the group small and the proceedings quiet; that provided a safe space for people to build trust and sort through the immensely complex passions around this topic.

For me, the lessons here are twofold. First, it is essential to honor those with a personal stake in an issue—and listen to them very, very carefully—while also inviting as many people as makes sense to the table. Second, it is valuable to reflect on the catchphrases we throw around every day: to evaluate their truth for this situation, in this context. By doing so, we force ourselves to think about the issue at hand more clearly. In thinking with clarity, we communicate that way too—and thus enhance our chances of connecting effectively in dialogue.

Does this make sense to you? Have you heard catchphrases that don’t quite stand up to scrutiny? Feel free to raise them here.

Dialogue, Truth, and Its More Obnoxious Fans

Uncle Sam wants YOU

to learn English

—bumper sticker

I saw this bumper sticker while driving up the interstate yesterday, and after the automatic cringe, it got me thinking about a much larger question than the wrangle over English speaking.

To get to that question, however, let’s probe the bumper sticker a bit more. It seems self-evident that learning the language of the country where you live carries many advantages. If I moved to France (please, O Lord), I could get a job, buy stamps, and find a good dentist way more easily by knowing and speaking French. On a broader level, I could contribute more of myself to my new community—through volunteering, writing, promoting political candidates, etc.—by knowing and speaking French.

So in the United States, learning English enables you to transact your business and make a difference in ways that not learning English can’t. Because of this, you might even say that Uncle Sam would be delighted if non-English-speakers learned English, so they can bring their whole selves to the public square.

None of that changes the fact that the bumper sticker is aggressive and cringeworthy. So here comes the larger question:

How on earth can we hear truth—even a grain of it—in an opinion expressed so offensively?

In an ideal world, of course, the people who express opinions this way would become more civil in their speech and their inner lives. In our imperfect world, there’s a strong temptation to simply ignore these folks. And to ignore any hint of what they express.

Maybe that’s the right thing to do. But here’s why it might not be.

I remember a cartoon in which one fellow at a bar said to another, “All I know is, if you’re against pollution, it can’t be all bad.” See the problem? As we dismiss someone we find obnoxious, we also dismiss his perspective—lock, stock, and barrel—and wind up in a place where we don’t want to be.

Examples? Here’s one to start us off: I’m very worried about the growth of the national debt. Have been since long before it became the cause célèbre of the right wing. But I find it very hard to express that opinion when the more rabid wing of the Tea Party has shouted it—and various distortions of it—from the housetops. I feel almost squeezed into the position of “If you’re against the national debt, it can’t be all bad.”

I’ll bet you can think of a hundred other examples. Go for it. Write about them in the Comments section below.

Dialogue Unbound

Last week, I had the privilege of sitting next to author Ben Cheever during lunch at the Marymount Manhattan writer’s conference.* When I mentioned that I was writing about civil, compassionate dialogue, he recalled Rodney King’s famous line: “Can’t we all just get along?”

Given this golden opportunity to explain myself, I instantly responded with a lame throwaway line. (Ben, please accept my apologies.) So, in the Department of Damn, I Wish I’d Said This, I wish I’d said this:

Dialogue has nothing to do with “just getting along.”

Don’t misunderstand me here. Getting along, living and letting live, and agreeing to disagree—when understood properly—are all worthy of pursuit. I believe dialogue can move us toward those high ideals.

But the process itself can be pretty bumptious. People are passionate about their convictions. The anger that pervades today’s society often drives them to defend those convictions in kind. So if we approach them with anything that strays from their perspective, we may well catch some flak. 

A good friend of mine recently took offense at my post on immigration. In a lengthy email, she described the harmony and mutual goodwill in her multiethnic California neighborhood. She highlighted the absurdity of Anglocentrism in a region where Hispanic culture came first. She took umbrage at what she saw as stereotypes of Mexicans.

As it turns out, I totally agree with her. But she also lit into me for using language that, in her opinion, just inflamed the situation further.

I’m glad she cared enough to invest herself in a lengthy reply (not to mention the days of research she conducted to formulate her thoughts). I may not agree with her assessment of my post, but that’s not the point here. The point here is that it’s easy to stereotype dialogue as the domain of people who just want to make nice, and, well, it just doesn’t work that way.

Because of my family history and emotional makeup, I have compelling reasons to want to make nice. I’m sure my passion for dialogue springs from that. But for me at least, it can’t end there, because (as I’m now finding) reaching across the divide means jumping into the fray—not on “our side” or “their side,” but as one trying to stop the shouting and start the talking.

Have you ever caught flak while trying to start an honest dialogue? How did you deal with it? Did it convince you never to enter the fray again, or did you find a way through? I’d love to know. Please use the Comments function below and share your experience.

*One benefit of this blog for you, dear reader, is that you don’t have to endure endless name dropping. The reason is simple: I don’t name-drop because I don’t know any names. If I ever come to know any names, I will name-drop only when necessary to make the point or wake up the search engines. Promise.

Speaking to Each Other on Immigration

A relative of mine who lives in Texas was venting about Mexican-Americans. We had been writing back and forth about immigration reform, and she expressed frustration particularly over issues of language and national identity.

At one point it dawned on me to ask, “How many Mexicans do you know personally?”

My point is not to single out my relative. I haven’t befriended any Tea Partiers, and they make my blood boil in the same way. No, this simply came to mind with the enactment of the immigration law in Arizona and the firestorm surrounding it. The point here is to ask a question:

Who is talking in the Southwest? More important, who’s listening?

What would they find out? If they talked with my relative, Latinos would hear why Texans’ ardent patriotism—perhaps a product of their unique history—makes it hard to swallow Mexican-Americans’ self-identifying as Mexican (and not American). They might hear about the Anglos who can’t find work in the Southwest because they don’t speak Spanish.

On the other side, Anglos might hear how extraordinarily difficult it is to learn English, how the economic hardship that brought many Mexicans here plagues them still, how humiliating it is to be stopped for DWL (driving while Latino).

These are guesses. I live in the Northeast, so I don’t see the struggles of these folks every day. What I have seen, in my own life, is how my preconceptions of a group melt away when I come face to face with a member of that group. My friendship with Frank changed my thinking about gay people. My friendship with Jane cleared away misconceptions about born-again Christians.

I ran a cursory Google search to find out who’s talking in the Southwest, but it came up empty. What have you heard? Are you aware of dialogue between Anglos and Latinos in Arizona, Texas, California, New Mexico? What kind of progress are they making? Click on Comments beneath this post and let us know.

A Stranger in France and a Path to Dialogue

A week in France over Christmas set me to thinking about one of America’s white-hot issues—and how we might deepen the dialogue around it.

While traveling through Normandy and Brittany, we encountered few people who were comfortable with English. I speak enough French to get by, so it became my job to order at the deli, buy stamps from the post office, talk to the cellphone people, etc. I adore the language, so this was a labor of love. But it took extraordinary amounts of mental energy to think through my sentences, understand the other person, and respond in kind. 

By the time my head hit the pillow, I was dead exhausted. And that led me to think about immigration.

Imagine you’re a U.S. immigrant whose first language is Spanish. Every day, you expend all that mental energy to navigate a strange language and culture. On top of that, you have to hold down a job, talk with your kids’ teachers, figure out the banking system, etc., etc. You may want to speak English, but learning a language takes years.

All this leads me to three thoughts. First, there’s clearly more to the immigration issue than “if you live here, you have to speak the language.” Whatever the validity of this position, it raises more questions than it answers. Since mastering English is both complex and time-consuming, can the U.S. take steps to accelerate the process among immigrants? How much accommodation should Americans make to other languages? Should government be involved in this? Should business?

All of this can lead to a rich dialogue, bridge building, and perhaps even a direction for policy. But it requires us to eschew bromides like “just speak English” as the beginning and end of the discussion.

Second, my place in this grand debate reminds me of the need for humility and sensitivity. I have my own (ridiculously liberal) opinions about immigration policy, but then I don’t live in a high-immigration region. It’s essential, then, that I honor the opinions of both Anglos and Latinos in the U.S. Southwest—because they live this issue. No matter how much I think that absolutes of social justice are on my side, I cannot be a party to this dialogue unless I commit to hearing others out.

Third is the surpassing value of travel in broadening our perspectives.  When we delve into another culture entirely, we quickly discover an incredible diversity of viewpoints. What seems self-evident to white Anglo Americans might be completely foreign to a South African matriarch, or an aboriginal hunter, or a young hotelier in Normandy. We cannot help but begin to see our personal worldview as one among many. This reorients us to approach others not only with openness, but with empathy.

In my case, I can hold all kinds of theoretical opinions about immigration and language issues. But traveling to France gave me a glimpse of what it really feels like to be a stranger in a strange land. It left me, quite naturally, with more openness, more empathy. And that was just for a week: imagine how much a year in Poland, say, or mission work in the Philippines might have changed me.   

Given the long, angry history of our national immigration debate—which has lasted well over a century—this openness and empathy might be just the thing to move us from debate to dialogue.