When I say listening, I don’t mean “debater’s listening,” in which you pay only enough attention to get the gist of the other person’s point so you can prepare your rebuttal. I mean radically compassionate listening: without judgment, without response.
Imagine forming citizen “talking circles” all across the country, where people of differing world views agree simply to listen to one another. The point would not be persuasion or conversion. The point would be presence. And the method would not be to discuss ideology explicitly. It would be to address a simple universal question—something like “Who influenced you, and how do you pass it on?”
Years ago, after I wrote a book about life-changing mentors, I led many such circles using that question as a prompt. My aim wasn’t to bridge political divides but to reveal a weave of relationship and obligation. It worked. Without fail, chords of connection would emerge among dissimilar people who found they’d been shaped by similar experiences.
These talking circles humanized strangers. And now, they could rehumanize enemies. Rehumanization doesn’t require that we try to like each other. It requires only that we try to see and hear each other: that we feel the pain and pride and hope and fear of our putative antagonists.
This brings us to the second step: doing stuff together. This is the genius of national service. It gets you and me together not to work on you or me but on a third thing. That thing can be cleaning an abandoned lot, tutoring immigrants, helping disabled seniors, preventing youth suicide—whatever it is, if it brings people together across lines of race, class, and politics, it will bring to the fore our common humanity.
Eventually, yes, service and volunteerism run up against the hard facts of structural inequity and injustice: Serving people regularly at a food bank begs the question why we need food banks at all. But in the meantime, the work of service—if it’s done alongside people not of your set—rehumanizes everyone involved. And literally repairs America.
If we listen more and serve more we’ll be ready for the third step: arguing more. More? Most people would say we have such dysfunction today because we already argue too much about too many things. But that’s a misdiagnosis of what ails American politics. We don’t need fewer arguments today; we need less stupid ones.
The arguments in American politics today are stupid in many ways: They’re stuck in a decaying two-party institutional framework; they fail to challenge foundational assumptions about capitalism or government; they center on symbolic proxy skirmishes instead of naming the underlying change; they focus excessively on style and surface.
Americans can do better. Remember: America doesn’t just have arguments; America is an argument—between Federalist and Anti-Federalist world views, strong national government and local control, liberty and equality, individual rights and collective responsibility, color-blindness and color-consciousness, Pluribus and Unum.