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Left Or Right, Challenge Yourself To Explore Opinions You Disagree With

I want to know who 'they' are and whether they are really so different from 'us.'

08/16/2017 12:02 EDT | Updated 08/16/2017 12:03 EDT

Contrary to what U.S. President Donald Trump said after the recent racially motivated violence in Charlottesville, VA, there are not "many sides" when it comes to dealing with racism. There are only two sides. That is how prejudice, racism, hatred and discrimination work.

It is not a new phenomenon. All of our communities are split into two camps; it has just become a lot more evident this week. In fact, however you identify yourself, you are probably either one of "them" or one of "us."

The Washington Post/Getty Images
White supremacist groups and counter protestors argue while a member of "The Militia" keeps the peace outside the Unite the Right rally on Aug.12, 2017.

Like everyone, I can identify myself by my race, my religion, my gender, my age, my place of residence, my nationality or my politics. We modify who is "us" and who is "them" depending upon our circumstances and our needs. This is all very well, until we try to have a conversation. If I am only interested in listening to people who are like me and who say what I believe to be true, I am not able to listen to any of "them." Even if I were to hear what they are saying, I am unlikely to believe it, because they are not one of "us." Worse, many of us have likely been taught to fear, dislike or ignore people who are not like "us." Sometimes there are good reasons for this. Other times, no reason at all.

I have been trying an educational experiment on myself. I am attempting to take some time each day to read or listen to political commentary coming from places I would prefer to ignore. I am trying to read the words of people whose opinions I would truly prefer to dismiss as stupid, ill-informed or just bonkers. This is not a lot of fun, and it is not easy. So why am I doing it?

Basically, I am curious about people. I want to know who "they" are and whether they are really so different from "us." When it comes to white supremacists, they truly are. I can find no common ground to even begin a conversation. However, not all people who say things that I find objectionable are white supremacists. Sometimes, they are not so different that I can't understand why they believe what they do — even if I still disagree.

What if we could teach our children to be curious — to ask difficult questions?

Here is why I would love to encourage more curiosity: I actually believe it enhances learning and could help to create a more equitable and peaceful world.

A teacher told me about two children in her Grade 4 class. They were best friends. They sat together and played together and always wanted to be one another's partner for group activities. She asked them if they were also best friends after school. They looked shocked at this question. They had never been to one another's homes and had no plans to do so. The teacher thought this was rather odd considering how well they got along and how closely they related one another. She asked them why their friendship ended at school. One of the two children took the teacher aside to explain to her that according to this child's culture, the other child and her family were "dirty." Their two cultures could not contemplate exchanging visits.

The two friends did not dismiss their families' opinions. They just worked around them during school hours. What if we could teach our children to be curious — to ask difficult questions?

I imagine the conversation going something like this:

Child: Why can't my friend come to our home to play?

Adult: You know that people like her are dirty. We can't have dirty people in our home.

Child: How do you know she is dirty? You have never met her or her family.

Adult: I do not need to meet her. I have been taught that this is true of all people like her.

Child: Could you have been taught something that is not true? I think you should find out for yourself. I did. I play with my friend every day and she is not dirty.

What would happen next? I have no idea. However, even if the adults never let the children visit one another's homes, the child who asks the questions has learned that her own observations are likely more trustworthy than the generalizations she has learned.

So today, I challenge you, no matter how you identify yourself, to step out of your "us" box for just a little while. Listen to, read or talk with someone you are sure you will find disagreeable. They might BE truly disagreeable, but you will have satisfied the part of your curiosity that tells you that you don't really know anything until you experience it yourself. If you discover that "they" are the terrible people you thought they were, you are now better informed and better able to mount an effective and powerful case against them.

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