If you travel far enough (in the physical or metaphorical sense) you’re sure to encounter people you disagree with. This is a good thing. It forces us to question our own opinions. But it can also be confronting and enraging.
For example, if I met someone on the road who told me that they support Donald Trump, I would find it very hard to be friends with them. I would probably even feel a sense of blame and resentment towards them.
I would also be puzzled because I simply don’t understand Trump-supporters. How could anyone vote for someone so openly misogynistic and racist? Are Trump voters all malicious, xenophobic and hateful? Do they want to separate families, let the poor go hungry and watch the world burn?
I can’t believe that.
Everything I’ve learnt from my travels has told me that people want to be kind and good. Sometimes they do bad things because they feel threatened or desperate. But generally, people don’t purposefully try to be nasty. So why do they vote for hate, racism and misogyny? How can we change their minds?
Exhibit A: Erdogan supporters in Turkey
It seems clear to most educated, Western minds that President Erdogan is a terrifying authoritarian dictator thrusting Turkey into the dark ages.
Before going to Turkey, I thought no reasonable human being could support him. But when I arrived in Turkey, I encountered kind and smart people who voted for him. I was curious to understand their perspective.
They told me that Erdogan’s government was improving their everyday lives by providing better infrastructure. They told me that they feel threatened by the anti-Islam rhetoric in the West. They believe that they need a strong leader to survive. I can understand that.
Most Erdogan supporters aren’t trying to destroy democracy. They’re just trying to protect their way of life in a complicated political climate.
Talking to people who think differently to me hasn’t ultimately changed my opinion. But now I’ve heard their side of the story I can empathise with them more meaningfully. We can still get along just fine.
Letting go of the hate
Do the people who voted for Donald Trump deserve our respect and kindness? Should we forgive them? I’m not sure.
But I know that being angry at them will only make us more divided. They already feel alienated and afraid, which is why they voted for him in the first place.
I also know that, for me, allowing myself to dwell on my anger will only damage my mental health, and be counterproductive to the good I could be doing in the world.
People don’t change their political opinions because they lost a debate or encountered an angry protester. While those things certainly have their place in the political discourse, they can also be divisive. We need to try and find creative ways of connecting with people we disagree with.
We need to listen to them with respect, patience and kindness. We need to build relationships and trust. After genuinely listening and empathising with them about their experience, we can show them the beautiful world that we are dreaming of. A world of cultural diversity, acceptance and freedom from discrimination.
Building relationships with people you disagree with can be emotionally taxing. It’s not for everyone, especially if you’ve got past trauma.
Maybe you will never get someone to change the way they vote, but if it makes for a little less hate in the world, it’s worth it.