Thomas Plante, Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, is a faculty scholar with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and an adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine.
After this recent national election ended on and shortly after November 3rd, I concluded that as a psychologist for over 30 years, I apparently do not understand people at all. A colleague of mine, a psychologist and lieutenant colonel in the military, recently suggested that I might have an “overly optimistic view of human nature.” Perhaps so but the level of extreme polarization, demonization, greed, and lies evidenced in our national political discourse is breathtaking and deeply disturbing at best. Many people believe that our interest in ethics, the common good, character, and Jesuit-inspired values highlighted here at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and at Santa Clara University are rather naïve and quaint. Maybe so but we must not give in to this pessimistic view of our society and human nature.
Sadly and tragically, people too often seem to be screaming past each other and refuse to listen to anyone with a point of view different from their own. Few seem open to changing their minds and only scream louder when confronted with information or facts that contradict their viewpoints. People are also quick to write off, ghost, or engage in cancel culture if someone says something that they do not like. Whether it is through social media platforms, cable news shows, talk radio, or face-to-face interactions, our society has lost the fine art of thoughtful, reflective, mature, and reasoned dialogue and debate. Is there any hope of reversing this disturbing and destructive trend?
Certainly, there are no simple answers or quick solutions. For those of us who fully embrace ethical decision-making and Jesuit values, we have many tools in our personal and professional toolbox to help. One set of tools that I find to be especially helpful in these circumstances comes from the wisdom of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) articulated over 500 years ago. Distilling his wisdom into three words to remember and to act upon can be very helpful to find a path towards reconciliation in our broken world and attempt to move towards the common good. The words to keep in mind are accommodation, humility, and goodness. Let me briefly unpack them.
No matter whom you are engaging in conversation, we need to try to understand or accommodate to their point of view by putting ourselves in their shoes. We certainly do not need to agree with everyone but can we work hard to understand where they are coming from. We need to try to see the world from their viewpoint and perspective.
We must approach difficult conversations and people with humility, recognizing that no one has the corner on the truth about everything. Rather than feeling overly confident in our own views and trying to convince others that we are correct while they are wrong (this never goes well by the way), we must approach difficult conversations and people with humility and an openness to learn from them.
Rather than assuming that those who disagree with us are bad, evil, ignorant, or disturbed, we must approach others with the assumption that they are good and want to embrace goodness. We must imagine that others, in their own way, want what is good and want what is best if their views seem hard to understand or to appreciate. We can start our conversation with others from this perspective and with the assumption of their goodness and good intentions.
Approaching difficult conversations and people with accommodation, humility, and the assumption of goodness might go a very long way in terms of having productive and useful conversations. These values attempt to find a path towards reconciliation, solidarity, and the common good. They underscore the values of respect and compassion which is a bare minimum to live in a civilized society focused on the common good.