During my first month on the city council I learned a difficult lesson. A small group came to see me to ask for my vote on an issue. They were persuasive and I agreed to support them. Within the week, a group opposing that issue came to see me. They articulately explained why this was a bad idea and I should vote against it. I don’t remember how I voted but I do know that I never again agreed to support a position until I heard from all sides.
I’ve been disturbed by the vitriol and labeling that masquerade as argument. Name calling and silencing the opposition have taken the place of exchanges of ideas and problem solving. This is the reason I was moved by two very different articles about or by people who advocate listening: Daryl Davis and a group of professors from the Ivy League.
Daryl Davis, a black man, is a well-respected professional blues keyboard musician who has played with Chuck Berry and other musical luminaries. Mr. Davis has an unusual sideline. He seeks out members of the Ku Klux Klan and befriends them.
It started one night when he was playing in a club and was asked by a white man where he learned to play the music he played because the man thought it was “white” music. A conversation ensued. The man told Davis he had never had a conversation with a black man before. Then he pulled his KKK membership card out of his wallet.
Davis doesn’t try to convince anyone they are wrong. He doesn’t even talk about race or politics. He just gets to know people and lets them get to know him. Once he gets to know them he asks them, “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” (1) In the process, he has inspired over 200 individuals to drop their KKK membership. He has a collection of over 200 KKK robes.
He says, “you challenge them. But you don’t challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate…” (1)
Davis’ unusual work inspired the feature-length documentary, “Accidental Courtesy,” directed by Matt Ornstein which was released in March, 2016.
Davis will never agree with Ku Klux Klan, but by seeing the humanity in his opponent and having patience, he has changed many minds.
Next, we have a group of Princeton Harvard and Yale professors who issued a joint statement on August 29, 2017 entitled “Some Thoughts and Advice for Our Students and All Students.” (2)
“our advice can be distilled into three words: Think for yourself. Now that might sound easy. But you will find …that thinking for yourself can be a challenge. It always demands self-discipline and these days can require courage.”
I quote further from their document:
“Thinking for yourself means questioning dominant ideas even when others insist on their being treated as unquestionable. It means deciding what one believes not by conforming to fashionable opinions, but by taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments…including arguments for positions that others revile and want to stigmatize…”
“Open-mindedness, critical thinking and debate are essential to discovering the truth. Moreover, they are our best antidotes to bigotry.”
Although these professors are addressing students, their suggestions apply equally to adults.
I encourage us all to take Daryl Davis as an example and role model, to be open and curious when encountering the “enemy,” to respect the humanity of our opponents and to do our best to understand sides of an issue with which we may disagree.