THE BLOG
08/07/2011 04:45 pm ET | Updated Oct 06, 2011

Are Liberals Nicer? Maybe Not So Much.

There is a notion that, at the very least, liberals are nicer, kinder, more compassionate, and that in general they stand for the "right" things. There is health care, caring about poor people, being anti-racist, being in favor of gay marriage, pro-choice, and certainly pro anything that is "environmental." Yet it begs the question, exactly how kind are liberals, progressives -- the kind and the caring and the socially conscious -- towards each other?

One of the downsides of writing for the Huffington Post is, according to many, the idea that we, in the "business" of writing opinion pieces, are just preaching to the choir. And that has many disadvantages, especially when a person can easily feel the futility of reaching anyone who wouldn't read this publication on principle or habit. But then, one can indeed ask, and should ask, just how effective we are as a very large and diverse group, in communicating amongst ourselves?

One of the most fierce problems we see on global and local levels is the inability to deal with conflict and major differences. I'm not speaking purely out of sour grapes, but I have noticed the most hostile comments submitted on my columns are from the very liberals, progressives, from whom I would expect (perhaps naively) to show respect for differences of opinion and in support of collaboration.

As both a psychotherapist and as a writer, the words "I don't agree" don't really pertain to most of what I stand for, since I support the idea that we are all connected. What that means for me is that just as we are connected to the planet and to each other, so too are ideas connected. A diversity of ideas can build on each other and intersect with each other with interest and without the premature closure of knee-jerk dismissal that is all too common. For example, if I were to suggest a reality show that targets empathy and the sharing of stories that got people to believe one way is the highway, I would not be looking for a yes or a no response but rather an addition.

There is one notion that the best way to teach is by modeling. I share this idea. And although the Tea Party is notorious for bludgeoning one idea at a time and simplistically both seductive and seduced by their own rhetoric, there is ample evidence that among progressives the art of discussion is also not so well developed. I am not speaking about debate; the sport of the less-than-athletically-prone or of the Harvard-bound, for debate is a battle ground by design: it has winners and losers whether in high school contests or presidential candidacies. I am talking more about the art of discussion, and about considering that each of us is as subjective in our arguments as the other.

I find myself humbled as a secular Jew summering in Tuscany with visits from two Germans whose families have surely been implicated in the Holocaust, just as most non-Jewish Germans have been. Entering a conversation about our histories and our prejudices has yielded for me new perspectives. I did not arrive at these new perspectives all of a sudden, or without interruptions of some old and fixed memories of stories and identifications from the past. Yet, by having a discussion on this level with these virtual strangers, I could almost feel the opening of brain cells, if not those of real emotional awareness during some tough conversations.

By contrast, I rarely receive the same respect, concern or careful listening from fellow progressives.

Recently my new German friend talked with me about the use of "and" rather than "or." She believes in the shadow, as I do, the Jungian notion that there lies the underbelly of the beast in all of us. This recognition that not one of us is immune to negativity is vital to discussion.

So it is striking me that at this particular moment of American history, we sorely need practice in flexing our potential to listen and hear our own heartbeats of fear and anger so that we don't have to continue the mess of blaming and scapegoating. We need to hear one another.

As progressives, we can't very well go after the sources of a Tea Party that sells non-compassion if we ourselves don't learn how to listen to ourselves and to each other. We are not "uni"-feeling, but rather ambivalent, as all people are who are willing to delve. And if we are indeed progressive and believe also in learning from history, then we will find that our own adherence to speaking loudly without listening for the subtleties in the other's rhetoric, we will wind up hiding any hint of truth from ourselves.

And if we progressives are to stand for a difference, then we need to learn how to both talk and listen. It matters not whether we disagree with each other but whether we can process thoughts and feelings and evidence in an atmosphere of respect for each other's opinions.

To be a progressive, it would seem to me that it is not only for the poor and the near-extinct that we need compassion, but for ourselves and for one another. It just never works when all the compassion is finished when we get to the mirror or the neighbor next door. Compassion is not yet a finite resource. However, we should be mindful that it is in great and grave danger of extinction.

I write this not out of sour grapes, but more about waking up and smelling the coffee, about waking up to more complex tastes and textures than simple "Tea."