11/09/2012 10:48 am ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

The Election's Real Mandate: Renewing Our Cultural Conversation

I always hesitate to wade into political issues, both in my personal life and in my writing. I'm neither a politician nor an economist, and what I have to offer is based primarily on my observations and opinions. To say nothing of how divisive and nasty the current political conversation tends to be.

Yet that is precisely why I've chosen to write this article. For while the arena in which we've found ourselves these past days, weeks, and months is a political one, there is a much larger issue this election has presented for exploration: the importance of renewing our cultural conversation. And it is a decidedly bi-partisan issue.

Regardless of who you voted for, we can all agree that civility and respect have been diminishing -- and often absent -- in recent elections, political conversations, and public discourse. Our willingness to listen and more importantly, to really hear what those with opposing views have to say has virtually evaporated.

And who can blame 'us'! Listen to what 'they' are saying! Where do 'they' get 'their' facts? To say nothing of 'their' crazy beliefs and views!

Sound familiar? It should, not only because it so often comes out of so many of our own mouths. But because it is precisely what 'they' are also saying about us.

I'll never forget a recent road trip when, wanting to hear what 'the other side' was up to, I tuned into a talk radio host interviewing a popular political writer about her latest book. My mouth literally hung open as the two lambasted and demonized 'us' for almost the precise things for which we demonize 'them.'

Indeed, we are at a stalemate. Locked in our respective factual and philosophical vacuums, we are each the victims of a media siding with the other, the only ones with brains, the sane party in touch with reality.

These types of views, some might say, have been around longer than our modern politics; that the tendency toward 'us versus them' is a human one. Yet the extent to which we villainize one another -- and our acceptance of and complicity with it -- has become more and more entrenched over the years. And it does not serve us, particularly as we march forward toward ever greater economic and environmental challenges, as well as into a rapidly expanding global market.

To begin solving the problem, we must demand a constructive national discourse, which can only be achieved through a powerful and binding commitment to creating one. And it's no easy task; most of us hedge our commitments -- if we're willing to make them at all -- with conditions that leave us with a back door that becomes all too easy to slip out of. This is true in our personal lives, and even more so in our public ones:

We will listen if we believe in the same set of facts. If a candidate subscribes to our personal views or religious beliefs. If a neighbor, family member, or colleague is on 'our side'.

On both sides, we behave as if our stubbornness and condescension might eventually lead to insight... on their part. Or worse, that 'they' are too dim, too lost, or too silly to be able to comprehend the great wisdom and vision that we on 'our side' so effortlessly and logically embrace.

No one responds well to arrogance. No one gladly opens their minds and hearts when met with rudeness and condescension. No one wants to come to the table in the face of patent dismissal.

And so I ask:

Who is prepared to begin a conversation about our current concerns and issues in a way that will open, rather than shut down discussion?

Who has the humility to imagine that they may not have all the answers, and can even learn from someone who emphatically believes he does?

Who has the courage and compassion to address unspoken fears and blatant prejudices that were generally placed long ago into unsuspecting minds... including our own?

Who has the curiosity to hear about someone's faith and to search for the commonalities of human hope?

Who has the patience to listen more than they speak, judge, and dismiss?

Who is willing to hear anger and nastiness for the panic that it is -- our own included -- and address them with understanding and even love?

I'm not so naïve as to say that this will be a simple or painless process. Nothing worth having, or doing, ever is; the abolishment of slavery and the achievement of women's suffrage at one time were far more inconceivable than the notion of a more sane and respectful national discourse.

Yet we are at a crossroads, each of us with a singular choice: to continue to be divisive and dismissive of 'the other half' of the US population, or to reach out and, with a firm commitment, begin again the important work of communicating with and honoring the shared humanity of one another. It is the only way we, as a nation, will move forward.