We shouldn’t be surprised.
Much has been said, written and lamented about our society’s inability to converse. We’ve become so polarized that “compromise” is now a synonym for “capitulate,” which we find unacceptable. In short: “I’m right. You’re wrong. If you don’t agree with me, I won’t just protest you. I will destroy you.”
That attitude played out tragically today on a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia. James Hodgkinson, apparently dissatisfied with Republican leadership in Washington—and President Donald Trump in particular—attacked a GOP charity ball team, shooting at least five people before authorities shot and killed him.
As I perused the news coverage, an opinion piece in the Sacramento Bee caught my eye. While hoping that the post-shooting bipartisan unity will endure, the Bee was insecure enough to ask, “Is it too naive to hope this will be a turning point—that this shooting will shock us out of complacency and acceptance?”
Given the evidence, I fear it's unlikely.
The heart of communication is dialogue—an exchange of ideas and perspectives with the goal of reaching an amicable agreement. That means active listening. That means respecting the other person, even when we disagree. That means being willing to give a little ground so everyone can move forward.
But that’s not where our society is at today. Our individual opinions are precious and above reproach. We proclaim them from our soapboxes of social media, strengthening our belief that they are sacrosanct. When we face disagreement, we dig our trenches deeper. We hold stubbornly to our viewpoints. We may even see the opposition as traitorous, or perhaps as a physical threat. From there, it’s a pretty short leap to eliminating the threat by whatever means necessary.
Many people will nod their heads at the paragraph I just wrote—and then point to those of a differing political persuasion as proof-positive of my words. Indeed, that’s already happening. Within hours of today’s shooting, conservative pundits such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were broadly blaming the left for the tragedy, rather than the behavior of one deranged man. No doubt progressives will soon respond by accusing the right of onerous acts that drive people like Hodgkinson to crazed action.
None of this is helping. Posturing won’t solve the problem. In the words of Stephen Hawking, hauntingly present in the Pink Floyd tune “Keep Talking”: “It doesn’t have to be like this. All we need to do is to make sure we keep on talking.”
I’ve spent 35 years of my life in communications. It’s not a career about brochures, press releases or corporate videos. Those are merely tools. Communication is about dialogue. It’s a process of interaction in which information is exchanged, relationships are built, and perspectives and decision-making are influenced to achieve mutually beneficial results.
If we won’t interact, if we refuse to build relationships, if we believe our results are the only ones that matter, how can we think that another Alexandria won’t happen?
The late Fred Rogers once said, “It's very dramatic when two people come together to work something out. It's easy to take a gun and annihilate your opposition, but what is really exciting to me is to see people with differing views come together and finally respect each other.”
Let’s pray for more of that kind of drama.