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Polarization is a myth – we just need to break down the barriers


Special to the News

American actor Alan Alda recently said, “I’m not really listening unless I’m willing to be changed by the other person.”

This is a powerful statement and one that could easily be misinterpreted.

Gerry Chidiac

Alda has created a podcast called Clear + Vivid where he discusses using communication to improve understanding between people. In this context, he’s not talking about becoming a chameleon and going along with every school of thought that’s presented to us. He’s talking about really trying to understand the thoughts of people who may disagree with us on important issues.

In order to comprehend the thoughts of others, however, we need to know ourselves. We need to be firmly grounded in solid principles like integrity and self-respect. This is why it’s vital to build up our children while sharing with them the wisdom of the ages. We need to be worthy of the trust they put in us as they explore and question the world around them.

It takes a great deal of self-love and self-confidence to embark on the journey of discovery that we call life. If we feel loved, we’ll learn that we’re lovable. If we feel listened to, we learn that our opinions matter. This enables us to love and listen to other people.

One of the most encouraging developments I’ve seen over my career as a professional educator has been the articulation of the character development we’re trying to achieve with our young people as part of the new curriculum. Where we once focused on academic achievement, we now establish goals of teaching core competencies like personal awareness and responsibility throughout the entire school experience. While it can be argued that these principles were always taught, the fact that they’re stated in documents like the new British Columbia curriculum makes the focus very clear. Clearer focus leads to greater achievement.

An interesting aspect of truth, however, is that while we need a firm understanding of the basics, we never understand the entire picture. We’re always learning more and expanding our comprehension of humanity. This is where Alda’s definition of real listening is most significant. We have to be open to the views of others, or else we will stagnate and never reach our full potential.

Some of the most moving interviews on Clear + Vivid have been with Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the founding editor of Ms. Magazine, and with American comedian Sarah Silverman.

Pogrebin discussed how she was able to bring together such diverse groups as Jewish and Palestinian women by focusing on their common experiences as women. From there, they were able to easily build bridges to overcome their differences.

In a similar way, Silverman recounted how lighthearted discussion of such common human experiences as going to the bathroom can create laughter and bring about an atmosphere of empathy among people with opposing political views.

We live in a time in which the tensions of polarization are very visible. It seems like the world is being torn apart.

As we gain better understandings of ourselves, we develop a confidence that allows us to be open to the opinions of others. As we allow ourselves to interact with those who appear to be different, we realize that much more unites us than separates us as humans.

Through our dealings with others, we come to the realization that polarization is a myth. People find tremendous joy through socialization and continual learning. To expand our understanding of the world, we need to be open to the ideas of our neighbours as much as they need to learn from us.

This marvel of life doesn’t result in us losing ourselves, it leads to the discovery of our unique and significant contribution to humanity.

Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students. Check out his website here. Find him on Facebook. Or on Twitter @GerryChidiac

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