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On talking to each other

It was a bizarre series of events that launched me into politics during my second year at school. Perhaps you are familiar with the chaos surrounding Lindsay Shepherd, and the controversy at WLU after  Shepherd showed a controversial video in a class for which she was a TA. The climate on campus was intense and, as the story spread, people couldn’t help but pick sides. Those who defended Shepherd, those who opposed her and everyone else who didn’t know enough to form a proper opinion on the matter walked on eggshells for several weeks. 

On occasion, someone would say something to oppose Shepherd and others would respond by promptly shutting that individual down. Other times, someone would defend Shepherd and a crowd would quickly silence them. 

WLU became an ideological minefield and tensions rose. They boiled over at a speech held by Shepherd, which quickly drew media attention.  

Curiosity got the best of me, and I couldn’t resist attending a rally at which  Shepherd was scheduled to speak on the matter.  

Surprisingly, one of the most interesting occurrences at this event had nothing to do with politics or any of the hot button issues of the day. Instead, it had to do with the way people organize and how they overcome division.  

Of course, there were attendees defending Shepherd and others criticizing her. Then, to the side, there was a reporter interviewing the most peculiar group. This group was composed of people who approved of Shepherd’s stance as well as those who disapproved. 

Much to my surprise, I heard as they engaged in a debate about the entire situation. They took time to ask one another difficult, prying questions; they paused to think through their opinions and then responded with careful consideration. They expressed their deeply-held passions and concerns, and, impressively, waited patiently to hear the concerns of others around them. 

After weeks of rising tensions and people holding their breath, I was surprised to see that there were some willing to engage in a long, deep conversation.   

I don’t know that anyone who left changed their mind. What I did see, however, was two groups  of people who started at odds with each other and left with a mutual respect—even if their  opinions remained distinctly opposite.  

In the past few years, and especially during the pandemic, we’ve seen people split over countless social fault lines. Like many Canadians, I watched as neighbours turned on each other and social discourse turned ugly. And, like many Canadians, I wondered what we’re headed to, if there’s a way to reverse all of this.  

I keep going back to the crowd on the grass field just outside the school, and what it means for the rest of us.  

I understand that some people’s beliefs were deeply-held convictions, the sort of principles that help them define and  navigate the world. Because of how central these beliefs are to how we operate in society, people are naturally-inclined to protect them fiercely. As a result, there are certain things we are too passionate about to discuss calmly.

I know that fear can run deep, especially when there’s so much unknown, and it can be overwhelming. I know that when someone else’s ideological position is depicted as a risk, it’s hard to see  them as anything other than that. And I know that under those conditions, it’s most natural to lash out as a defensive mechanism. I also know that it’s not easy to rise above these obstacles because, as humans, we are prone to tribalism. 

What those students did, though, gave me hope.  

It doesn’t mean that anyone’s opinion changed. What had changed, however, was how they  perceived the other side of the conversation. They learned how someone else might see the world.  

And this can be scary. We’ve been conditioned to be afraid of certain opinions—and, to be fair,  there are certain ideologies that are flat-out dangerous. The reality though, is that despite media sensationalism, most people are just people一people with bizarre or even  controversial views, but still regular people with regular hopes and regular fears. Not nazis, not communists and not the next Jim or Alex Jones一just people. 

It’s something we can appreciate when we have a conversation, learn where someone else is coming from, and commit to seeing them as a  person, no matter how weird or misguided or bizarre we might think they are.  

As I think about the world we live in, I become more convinced that this is the way we build  bridges and reverse the polarization we’ve created and endured. To speak to another person, to  hear their side of the story, and to reserve our bias are things that don’t always come naturally. 

However, the beautiful thing is that it is possible. When we engage in these conversations, we  may discover a way of thinking about the world that we’d never even imagine on our own. We might learn a new way to interact with nature, to relate to hardship or to improve our spiritual and physical health. We might connect to perspectives we’ve never thought of before or increase our understanding of perspectives we already have. We might discover that someone’s  oppositional opinion has been deeply and carefully thought out, even if we don’t agree with their  conclusion.  

What’s most important, though, is we might discover that we have far more in common with one another than we often think.  

Politics aside, we have families, friends, dreams and aspirations, fears and hopes. There are areas in our life where we are strong, and others where we need support from our community. There  are things that we can bring to the table that no one else can.  

And when we can look past a political fracture, there is literally nothing that can hold us back.