26 November, 2017

How Germany Made Me More Open-Minded

Image source: pixabay

Before I came to Germany, I considered myself an open-minded person. I was accepting of people's differences, tried not to judge anyone before I got to know them, made an effort to recognize my own privilege and was generally empathetic towards other people. But when it came to one thing I was, in hindsight, not remotely open-minded: different political opinions.

In the US it has become commonplace for there to be a total of two sides to every argument, a liberal one and a conservative one.
Quick sidebar: (If you're familiar with the American use of the words "liberal" and "conservative" you can skip this part.) To make things confusing, Americans use the term "liberal" differently than many other countries. In many places, "liberal" means what Americans think of as conservative, specifically a preference for a free market and a desire for less government regulation. In an American context, "liberal" refers, broadly speaking, to a set of beliefs advocating social equality combined with government funding and regulation of many aspects of life including health care, welfare, education, and much more. "Conservative" in an American context means conserving traditional family and social structures combined with less government involvement and regulation at all, or at least most, levels. (There is much more to it than that, but that is my quick explanation in a nutshell.)
Within this binary framework, people tend to stay within their respective camps. For example, if you are pro-gun ownership then you must also be a Republican, against marriage equality, anti-abortion, against Obamacare, etc. And if you are pro-choice then you must also support the Democrats, want stricter gun regulation, support Obamacare, be pro-gay and transgender rights, etc. The expectation is that you will fall neatly into one of these two categories, and any discussion of individual issues seems doomed from the start because people's identities are so wrapped up in which one of these two camps they belong to. Expressing an opinion that is counter to a friend's can end in disaster because the friend perceives your support of the "enemy" as a personal attack on themselves, effectively shutting down any valuable discussion that might occur. People become more and more isolated within their bubble until they can't even imagine how people could think differently than they do. Questioning your own beliefs or trying to understand the views of the other side is rarely tolerated.

In Germany that is not the case. Of course there are people everywhere, Germany included, whose identities are strongly tied to their political beliefs, but it doesn't seem to be quite the cultural epidemic here that it is in the US. While things have gotten more polarized and identity-driven in recent years with the emergence of the right-wing party AfD (Alternative for Germany) and a growing anti-immigrant movement, the political leanings of individual people tend to range along a wider spectrum, with people having some views in common with friends and family and others where they disagree. The black-and-white, Democrat vs. Republican split that you see in the US doesn't exist to anywhere near the same degree, and political discussions don't regularly devolve into perceived personal attacks, defensiveness and outrage.

When I lived in the US, and especially toward the end of college, I participated wholeheartedly in the binary political belief system. I was firmly in my camp and would become enraged on a near-daily basis by the perceived wrongdoings of "the other side." I simply couldn't understand how the other side could possibly do or say or believe the things they did, and every time that happened I was even more validated that my views were the correct ones. (Sound familiar?) When I came to Germany I still had that mentality, and when I got into political discussions with people (mostly with Maxim), I reached for the tools at my disposal: I refused to admit that the other person's argument had the slightest validity, refused to see where they were coming from and stubbornly stuck to my line of reasoning (and of course felt personally attacked in the process).

But after this happened a few times I realized something: this person had no intention of attacking me. They remained calm when I was having a hard time doing so, and there was no ego or personal identity wrapped up in this for them. They really did just want to have a conversation with me about multiple facets of this issue. Since I knew that my conversational companion wasn't trying to win an argument at the expense of my self-worth, I started to do something radical. I started to actually consider the points they were making before rushing in with my counter-attack. I realized that by immediately snapping to judgment on basically everything based on the liberal–conservative split I had been trained to follow, I was often missing out on even basic information and ignoring the nuances that are part of every political issue that there has ever been.

I learned to loosen the tight grip I had on stances I considered non-negotiable and let more nuance and reality into my way of thinking. Considering that the other side might have a point and that there was a legitimate, usually non-hostile reason for people to have a differing opinion than mine allowed me to consciously consider my own opinions more freely, examine different sides of an issue that I hadn't noticed before, and either change my stance to fit the new information, if it was compelling, or not. As a result, I don't snap to judgments as much I used to and have learned to allow some ambiguity into my opinions. I am more likely to admit that the other side has a point and that I can understand where they are coming from, without feeling like I am giving up ground in some ideological war.

I can't say for sure how much of this influence has been Germany and how much of it has been Maxim. It's probably been a bit of both. Since we met, Maxim and I have had many conversations about political topics and continue to do so regularly, and he has consistently modeled a different type of political conversation than the one I grew up with. When he played devil's advocate during our first few political conversations (something Germans like to do for the sake of a lively discussion), I immediately went on the defensive and got much more worked up than I should have. But over time I realized that his devil's advocacy wasn't undermining my position, it was an effort to fully understand all sides of the issue in order to have an informed opinion. I learned to take a deep breath and consider the ideas my counterpart was presenting, without the politically charged baggage that likes to attach itself to these things. Being outside of the American political landscape gave me a freedom I never felt like I had in America to consider new ideas, and I was able to let go of the expectations of how I was "supposed" to think.

A perfect example of this more open-minded approach happened a few nights ago. Maxim and I watched a documentary-style TV show about a planned amusement park which would recreate aspects of German life in the Nazi era. As you might expect, the somewhat macabre plans came complete with a wide variety of family fun, including virtual reality, blimp rides, book burning and a replica concentration camp. The show was hosted by a well-known German comedian, which led us both to wonder if it was satire (it was).

Although it turned out to be satire, we weren't sure if it was or not as we watched, so we watched as if it were true. It included many scenes of real events, such as a World War II reenactment weekend that takes place every year in England, and the opinions of most of the interviewees were genuine. The "documentary" presented the views of the owner and supporters of the alleged amusement park as well as the views of people who found the idea distasteful and appalling. Despite it being satire, it wasn't sensationalized or presented in a way that was meant to immediately skew the opinion one way or another, and afterwards Maxim and I talked about it and weighed the arguments from both sides.

The discussion we had wasn't geared towards coming to a conclusion or deciding which side was "right." And although I have an opinion on the matter, I don't feel the need to defend my position at the expense of all others. I understand where people on the other side are coming from, and I don't think they are bad people for believing what they do. I'm okay with the idea of leaving my views on this topic conflicted and admitting I don't have all the answers, something I would have been hard-pressed to do a few years ago. I'm grateful for this personal development, because it has ultimately made me a more open-minded and empathetic person. I wish everyone could have a similar experience and learn to approach hot-button issues more thoughtfully.

Although moving to Germany is out of the question for most people, leaving the country is not the only way to work toward a more nuanced political outlook. If nothing else, move away from Fox News and get your information from more than one, less biased source. Put your ego aside when you talk politics and try to understand where the other person is coming from. Ask more questions rather than just supplying answers. Listen more. Remind yourself that you don't have to have an opinion about everything, and if something makes you outraged ask yourself why the supplier of that information wants you to feel that way. Often it's simply an attempt to create an enemy, divide people into "us" vs. "them" and distract from the real issue.

I know it's hard. Admitting that your opponent's opinion is valid can feel like you're admitting defeat or giving up some integral part of yourself. But if you have people in your life with different views and you value your relationship with them, it can be worth it to rethink how you communicate with them politically. It's a thankless task for sure, but I think modeling a different type of political discussion, like Maxim has done for me, is an important step in changing our black-and-white, us vs. them political mentality.

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