By Amy Antonelli, MC/MPA’13, Correspondent
“Damn it!!!! Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!!! This BullSH$% makes me furious. We have one of the absolute most corrupt administrations in the history of this country and 50 million idiots just voted to give Obama another term.”
This statement, posted by a conservative acquaintance on Facebook days after the 2012 election, dismayed me. Although as a Republican I, too, opposed the reelection of President Barack Obama, I was deeply troubled by the level of vitriol with which this person dehumanized so many of his fellow Americans simply because they took a differing political viewpoint.
Not many days later, I sat in a Kennedy School classroom and listened with white knuckles as a fellow student accused me of being “stupid” and “racist” simply by virtue of being a Republican. After several minutes, I finally asked him stop.
How is it that we have lost our ability to recognize that when we categorize entire groups of people in such derogatory ways, we are doing exactly what we are vehemently accusing them of doing?
Our commission, upon admittance to the Harvard Kennedy School, was to become “exceptional leaders [who] generate ideas that provide solutions to our most challenging public problems.”
The weight of that commission was gravely brought home to us this April as we lived through Boston’s tragedy and, together, found human comfort in the aftermath of the unthinkable. During that time, I doubt there was one HKS student who didn’t pause to contemplate this serious question: “What can I do to stop this from happening?”
Unless we, as future world leaders, can learn to respect our political opponents as intelligent people capable of rational thought, we will never come close to solving these problems. And when the importance of being right distracts us from truly solving problems, we incapacitate ourselves and cripple those we are trying to help.
Among the most defining moments of my Harvard career have been the many late nights I’ve spent arguing with Democrat friends about political issues around which we will likely never agree.
True to the Kennedy School persona, each of us is equally confident that our particular version of “how to change the world” is correct, and the hopeless yet undaunted challenge of trying to convince one another we’re right has been one of the best parts of our year here.
The surprising moments of clarity for me have come in the aftermath of these discussions, when everyone is sitting back and once again laughing. It is then that I look around and still see a room full of true friends – people I realize I have come to love – and people for whom I would now unhesitatingly give my life.
As it turns out, at some point during all those late nights I discovered in my Democratic classmates people I deeply admire. They are honorable and patriotic, people who believe in their country and who feel a sense of real duty towards those who suffer. They are smart, and good, and they inspire me to be a better person.
Not only that; but they hear me. I have been truly touched by friends who refused to simply label me as a “right-wing lunatic,” but who instead honestly listened to the reasoning behind my political positions and genuinely tried to understand my perspectives.
I will never forget the Sunday when more than 25 of my HKS classmates visited my church in Cambridge in order to understand better my religious beliefs. Though they came from all different religions and cultural backgrounds, that day they came just to hear me. I think when I am 100 years old I will still remember that experience as one of the most touching moments of my life.
Throughout the year, though we rarely changed each other’s political minds, the absolute certainty that we were heard and respected by one another allowed us to find common ground in many other ways. Out of that common ground I discovered some of the best, most unexpected friends, and some of the best, most powerful allies. And in that safe space, we accomplished so much good.
Here’s the thing. Though I disagree vehemently with so many of President Obama’s policies…I hope I’m wrong. Because right now he is in power, and if I’m wrong, that means America will be a stronger, happier, more successful country when he is finished. And that – far more than being proven correct – is my ultimate aspiration.
But perhaps there is also a third alternative. Maybe it isn’t about right and wrong at all, but about simply finding a way to recognize the value of the intelligent people around us who also love their country and share a desire to improve it. Perhaps offering one another true respect, regardless of our ideological differences, is the only chance we have of ever changing the political battlefield we now enter.
Carl Rogers and F.J Roethlisberger claim: “We can achieve real communication … when we listen with understanding. This means seeing the expressed idea and attitude from the other person’s point of view, sensing how it feels to the person, achieving his or her frame of reference about the subject being discussed. It may sound absurdly simple … but it is the most effective way we’ve found to … improve communication with others.”