We live in divisive times. If you say good things about an idea or a person on the other side, your friends may think you’re flirting with treason. But we must understand and respect each other if we are to make the world a better place.
That’s why I read complimentary biographies of people I disagree with. We each favor a political party and worldview. Most of us lean towards a spiritual or faith tradition. It is natural to admire our side’s heroes.
Many people think of people on the other side as ill-informed, possibly a little dim, or maybe even… evil. Unfortunately, that seems to be the common human condition. Several years ago, I heard a TED talk by “wrongologist” Kathryn Schulz and it changed my perception of how other people act. As she writes in her book, Being Wrong:
“A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything: about our political and intellectual convictions, our religious and moral beliefs, our assessment of other people, our memories, our grasp of facts.”
This basic human characteristic is exacerbated by our human tendency to divide into tribes. These days communication bubbles and anger-stoking media, in all forms, make things even worse. To defeat those forces, we must make a conscious effort to understand people from other tribes.
That’s why I read biographies of people I disagree with. Here’s a recent example.
Reading to Understand
I read the biography of a major political figure. I disagree with many of his major stands. People I trust and respect, but disagree with, consider this man to be a wise and brave leader. I thought of him as a person on “the other side.” I wanted to understand my friends’ thinking.
Why Read Biography?
I prefer to read my subject’s book-length biography. Biographies routinely explain a person’s history, family background, and formative experiences. That helps me understand the person and why his or her positions differ from those I would choose.
What I Learned
This volume presented my subject’s heritage in ways that showed why he valued certain policies deeply and was disinclined toward others I find more appealing. His choices were substantially different from mine.
The book explained why he was so dedicated to his causes, and how people on my side falsely accused him of deceit and distortion. The biography told of his patient endurance of private sufferings.
When I finished the book, I still disagreed with his policies, but I came to admire his character. He strove hard to live according to his understanding of truth. He valued education, enterprise, family, grace, and our nation. In fact, his core values were surprisingly close to my own. Now I appreciate why my respected friends admired this hero.
Why Understanding is Important
Reality is often uncomfortable. Billions of people disagree with us on the most important economic, political, and spiritual issues. Few of us will change even ten people’s views on those issues. Those who disagree won’t disappear.
Abe Lincoln is widely regarded as one of the nation’s best Presidents. He challenged us to live in alignment with the better angels of our nature. He led the country through our most costly war, in blood and our national destruction. When many sought to punish the defeated South, Lincoln envisioned reconciliation and restoration.
Peacemakers are often criticized and harassed by both sides. Bomb throwers are often cheered by some on their own side. Understanding and working with people who disagree with you seems almost impossibly hard. Yet almost everything worthwhile is hard. Being a loving, empowering spouse or parent is hard. Excellence at work is hard.
Working with people you disagree with to achieve positive change, is hard. Understanding is the first step.
What practices do you use to understand the other side’s perspectives or to promote peace?
Terry Moore, CCIM, is the author of Building Legacy Wealth: How to Build Wealth and Live a Life Worth Imitating. Read his “Welcome to My Blog.”