You only have to open up Twitter—or start a conversation with a member of the opposite political party—to see that we’re living in polarizing times. In the last few years, it seems like some unseen supervillain has poised a giant magnet over our nation, propelling us all to far-flung corners of ideology.
Like most people, I haven’t been immune to the drastic effects of the last several years’ political cycles, culture wars, and pandemic side-taking. But as I’ve noticed myself leaning further in a particular ideological direction, I’ve realized I don’t really want to succumb to the dramatic polarization that drives people apart. As a Catholic, I believe I’m called to peacemaking.
That’s why, in the last few months, I’ve given some thought to how to keep a more balanced approach to my political beliefs. I certainly haven’t perfected the art of non-judgment—and believe me, I still have my strong opinions!—but I’ve learned that certain small behaviors can add up to greater compassion and less extreme thinking.
Here are five everyday strategies that have helped me creep back from the distant end of the ideological spectrum.
Don’t ditch the friendships
I don’t tend to be political online, but not long ago, after I shared a Facebook post celebrating a victory for my political “side,” I was unfriended by six people overnight.
Not gonna lie, that hurt. But having been on the receiving end of others’ scorched Earth social media strategy, I’m all the more motivated to keep, not eliminate, relationships with people of different opinions.
It’s not just that I’d rather not hurt people’s feelings if I can help it. Surrounding myself only with like-minded folks, while comfortable, doesn’t stretch me intellectually—and it’ll never help me understand their side of the story. Plus, people are so much more than their politics! Ditching friends with opposing opinions would only devalue my life.
Case in point: Once a month I have lunch with an old work friend who is in every way my ideological opposite. I always leave our lunch date challenged and thankful to know that I can genuinely like someone with different beliefs and values.
Start with curiosity
Some of the best advice I’ve ever received in therapy is to get curious about my own emotions. Why do I feel the way I do? What makes me behave the way I do? Answering these questions helps me see that, usually, my motivations come from a good (or at least, protective) instinct.
The same holds true for understanding the actions of others. So many relational bridges can be crossed or rebuilt with the simple question “why.”
To fight polarization, try asking others for the reasons behind their actions or beliefs. It will likely broaden your horizon to see their (often very logical) reasoning. And don’t forget to receive their answers with openness, listening rather than preparing a rebuttal. The last thing anyone wants after baring their soul is a barrage of arguments.
Perform acts of kindness toward your opposites
Ready to really stretch your emotional and spiritual muscles? Consider not just listening to people on the other side of the political gamut, but performing acts of kindness toward them.
This doesn’t, of course, mean doing things that go against your convictions. (You don’t have to join them at the next rally for the American Rubber Chicken Association when you believe rubber chickens are a scourge upon society.) Instead, think of a small, everyday act of kindness that could mend fences.
There’s a person in my life whose very vocal political beliefs drive me batty. But on this person’s birthday last year, I made a point to take her a card and a gift. It was a gesture that took a lot of pride-swallowing on my part—and I can’t say that I saw a huge change in our relationship afterward—but kindness, like forgiveness, is good for us, not just the other person. After I dropped off the gift, I walked away feeling a bit lighter and more positively toward my antagonist.
Curate your social media feed
If there was ever a wormhole of polarization, it’s social media. With the ability to say yes or no to what we see in our feeds, we become puppet masters of our own tiny world—one that typically suits our views to the last detail. But curating your social media merely to reinforce your own beliefs is a surefire recipe for extreme beliefs. (There’s that magnet over our heads again.)
Lately, on my social media feeds, I’ve tried to strike a balance between protecting my mental health and remaining open to opposing ideas. As much as some of my friends’ posts may rub me the wrong way, I haven’t unfollowed them unless their content is a steady stream of tirades (or other posts I can feel pulling me down emotionally).
Similarly, I follow thought leaders from “the other side” on Twitter to maintain a sense of where they’re coming from. At the height of the pandemic, for example, it helped to see the underlying beliefs and emotions of people who felt dramatically differently than I did about issues like masks, school closures, and social distancing.
Remember that everyone deserves freedom of opinion
I count the freedoms of speech and opinion as some of the greatest gifts of being an American. It’s a wonderful thing to know I have the right to my beliefs and can express myself openly. Since I enjoy these freedoms so much, I know it’s imperative to extend them to others. Cancel culture may say that certain people should be silenced for their beliefs, but we’ll never connect with others by shutting them down.
As for me, I’m trying to remember that we’re all in this together. When I see you in the distance on the ideology spectrum, I hope to smile and wave—and maybe even invite you to lunch. Will you join me?