Opposition: A lesson from Russia

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Divergent opinion is human nature. It’s also necessary to a healthy democracy, especially in America’s evenly and hotly divided climate — as the framers warned us in Federalist Paper No. 10:

“... the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens ...” [emphasis added]

We’re not so good at extending the sphere right now. Not only are we narrowing our individual and partisan spheres, but we barely tolerate (if we even try) different or opposing viewpoints. That’s not just unhealthy and undemocratic, it’s fostering an atmosphere of distrust and fear which feeds on itself, growing like a tumor and making us sick.

Crushing the opposition — not only politically, but inside our minds — alienates us from one another. Alienation breeds fear and distrust. Fear and distrust leave a gaping hole, an inflated need for “safety and security” — both physical and emotional.

Oppression thrives there. And that’s where Russia can teach us something.

If you don’t read international news you probably missed Moscow’s crisis of opposition. Protests began in July, when the government blocked high-profile, otherwise-qualified opposition candidates from running for office. Street protests started small but are growing steadily, swelling to 50,000 a week ago, with violence escalating.

The Kremlin’s response? Predictably hard-line. Putin points to the collapse of the Soviet Union, citing security needs against giving ground to the opposition — ironic given the oppressive insecurity that creates. The party in power feels backed into a corner, fangs bared. The citizenry suffers.

The harder people oppose, the harder they’re opposed. The vicious cycle of fear and distrust escalates. That should sound familiar even here.

Tolerance — better yet, open-mindedness and an active ear — are essential to democracy. To safety and security.

Some psychologists are saying the way we think about safety and security, about opposing viewpoints, is feeding a perception that we are unsafe. That the world is devolving.

Fear, along with less face-to-face contact in favor of social media rants, lead to less contact with unfamiliar people. Less contact prevents us from discovering commonalities (good parenting, hobbies, charitable acts), making others seem flatly defined by their opposing opinion, instead of by the complicated good-and-bad that is human nature. In such an inner mental environment, even unthreatening acts can seem harmful or ill-intended.

What to do about it? Two things:

First, we can practice open listening: Seek to understand where people are coming from, what led to their viewpoint beyond the rhetoric. That’s not the same as agreeing, mind you. Just recognizing we all have our reasons — which don’t make the other side inhuman or subpar.

Second, we can shift our internal narratives: Exercise control over how we perceive our environments, changing mental habits and off-the-cuff reactions. Fear can be countered with a broader perspective, such as reminding ourselves of the preponderance of good in humanity.

There are so many examples of that good — yes, in the news. It’s just not what we remember, but that is easily changed, with intention.

That includes reactions to strangers and everyday interactions, said Manhattan College social psychologist Diane Urban in the Monitor Weekly. Focusing on scary events, instead of everyday non-scary ones, and alienating ourselves from interactions with people of all kinds and beliefs create an inflated sense that the world is a dangerous place.

“[W]e’re completely cutting ourselves off from the bigger picture, which is actually a picture of compassion and empathy and kindness,” Urban said.

That includes the opposition.

• • •

Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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