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Tired of a Polarized Country? You Can Help Change It.

When I started this blog, I promised myself I wouldn’t use any lightning-rod words that tend to send people scampering off to their narrow cultural corners. That included names of certain politicians, political parties, or other labels steeped in an “us vs. them” mentality.

I’m breaking that promise in this post. We have to get past this mentality, but in order to do so, first we have to go through it. So, let’s dive right in:

I’m Done Being a Liberal.

I’m guessing when you read that, you thought something like, “WTF? Who would become a conservative this day and age?”. Or, I suppose it could have been “Yay, another one down!” Either way, somewhere in your thinking lurks an opposite of what you think liberal is.

Why? Because we have been trained to think in binary terms. If someone is not a liberal, then they must be only one other thing: a conservative. This kind of thinking is ingrained in us:

  1. You say left, but think right for context.

  2. Don’t look up means you probably glance down.

  3. If it’s not black, it must be white.

  4. Turn it off implies it’s already fully on.

Even though there are a million points and possibilities in between the opposite ends, our brain tends to reduce and simplify. And when we lazily go along with such binary thinking, we play right into the hands of politicians and media profiteers who feed off of “us” and “them.”

Well, I’ve decided enough.

Let’s shift away from this dumbed-down version of humanity. If you or I can do even a small thing from our little pinpoints in the world, it’s worth doing. Because frankly, such simplified, limited thinking is beneath our intellectual capabilities.

Leadership over labels

From here on out, I refuse to call myself a liberal—a label that just signifies I’m part of one club and not another. Instead, if and when it comes up in conversation, I will respond by explaining (without labeling) the kind of leadership I believe is worth promoting:

  1. I am for leadership that builds and supports systems where all life is seen as interconnected. This kind of leadership understands the deep, simple truth that what affects one ultimately affects all.

  2. I am for leadership that weighs decisions by considering consequences that affect future generations. This includes avoiding harmful repercussions on the planet.

  3. I am for leadership that is strong enough not to be bought. It bypasses “favors” owed, subtle bribes, ego strokes, or any kind of influence that runs counter to doing what’s best for the community.

  4. I am for leadership of heart and mind that follows the highest good for humanity and communicates that clearly. It talks the talk, walks the walk. And just as important, it has a strength of character that can admit when it errs.

  5. I am for leadership that is forward-thinking even as it honors achievements, sacrifices, and lessons from the past. This kind of leadership focuses on what we can become, yet doesn’t kneel down to the way things have always been.

  6. I am for leadership that believes in hope over despair, love over dispassion, and daring solutions over band-aid quick fixes.

  7. I am for leadership that breeds freedom not imprisoned by an ideology.

This doesn’t mean that whenever the “Liberal or Conservative” topic comes up I’ll stand on a soapbox (or worse, stay silent). But it does mean that I will avoid the label game, which keeps the same deadening binary approach in play. And even if I were to refer to myself as an Independent, that would still say “I’m okay with this binary labeling game—I just don’t feel like playing.”

If *you* were to move beyond the labels of liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, Us and Them, what would that look like? Instead of falling in line with a label, how would you describe the leadership you’d get behind?

Choose words with care

Instead of passively accepting a label and playing the bipartisan game, we can at least stir thought, prompt reflection, and promote discussion with our words. This means both the words we use and the ones we intentionally avoid.

Words are powerful. They sustain our culture by guiding our thoughts, while also influencing our feelings and actions. Our words shape who we are, and they help determine our collective values (like I’ve described earlier, regarding gun culture).

When it comes to labels—particularly political labels—words are sticky. They get drummed into our subconscious. That’s why name-calling works. (For example, Google Trump + name-calling to better understand the insidious use of nicknames and labeling.)

So instead of an endless game of Red Rover—pushing and pulling between two teams who vie for power—I propose we guide such conversation to what matters: integrity, leadership, our planetary future, humanity’s survival.

Create a better vision

When I picture my country (the US) and much of the world caught between the binary ideas of left/right, win/lose, conservative/liberal, I see a giant, beautiful set of doors trapped behind chains and a padlock. And I envision that every time we rip off a label or refuse to engage in communication that perpetuates the binary game, we loosen the chain and pick at the lock.

When enough of us stop playing the old game, the proverbial doors can swing wide open. What lies beyond them will need to be discovered and created, but at least we won’t keep pounding our heads against the impasse of a dead end.

Using antiquated labeling and an outdated way of thinking doesn’t serve us, nor does it advance a viable, sustainable future. So if you are presented with a “business as usual” political conversation, consider challenging yourself to not use the obvious labels. And prompt the other participant(s) to declare what they really stand for, outside the usual talking points.

When we choose our own words and descriptors with deliberation and authenticity, we become more invested in what we’re saying. And when we’re talking about a better future for all of us, it’s an investment we have no choice but to make.

A version of this article was originally published in Illumination, on Medium.

The foundation for understanding systems, language, and effective communication begins with a solid education from early childhood. To that end, the nonprofit recipient for this post goes to the top-rated Childhood Education International, a 132-year-old organization whose primary objective is to ensure children’s access to quality education worldwide.

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