Opinion | Tony Jones: We could use a dose of Dickensian reflection | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Tony Jones: We could use a dose of Dickensian reflection

Charles Dickens was a brilliant social critic of his time and the lessons that he sought to impart through his fiction continue to resound to this day. That includes lessons that, if we took them to heart, could help us to mend the divisions that afflict modern society. The most important of those lessons is to feel empathy for our fellow man, regardless of their political stripe or place in society. And with empathy comes understanding.

In “A Christmas Carol,” it took one dark and snowy night and three ghosts for Ebeneezer Scrooge to come to understand how the other half lives. He’d spent the latter part of his life in an echo chamber reverberating with his own presuppositions and stereotypes. Until a ghostly Jacob Marley appeared, Ebeneezer rarely took a moment to consider what others in society thought or how they came to be in the places they were, let alone the part that he may have played in putting them there. 

It seems like America today could use a good dose of Dickensian self-examination. In assessing Christmases past as Ebeneezer did, many of us may recall things we’ve said or done and come to regret. Political speech is often at the root of such missteps (this certainly applies to me). For some, perhaps it was an ill-advised comment about gun control and how those who don’t support greater regulation on the issue are complicit in the problem. For others, maybe remarking that being a supporter of a woman’s right to choose makes that person an accessory to murder. Such ill-advised comments ignore the many nuances of these complicated issues. If a person were to instead take a moment to really listen to what “the other side” thinks, asking probing questions that don’t pigeonhole a person but rather compel them to consider alternatives to their own points of view, strides towards reconciliation may occur.

Those examinations of Christmases past may also remind us of things that we wish we had said but didn’t, a la Ebeneezer and his beloved Belle. While much of the problem with communications today is not listening to or trying hard enough to understand the other side, another part of it is missing the opportunities to say those things that might enhance understanding between people. In a conversation that is respectful and considerate, we shouldn’t have to hold back on what we say, because others will know that those comments are offered with the best of intentions. 

So, when living in the Christmas present, we should be able to have discussions, both political and familial, without worrying about creating rifts that may never mend. When we debate, I want you to poke holes in my arguments and question my assumptions, but please always treat me with the respect and consideration that you would seek for yourself. Do so, and I promise that I’ll give back in kind, and who knows, maybe we’ll find common ground. It’ll also help me develop empathy for your position by encouraging me to regularly challenge my own presumptions. 

Christmas future promises to be bleak if we don’t learn how to converse without splitting into separate camps and erecting walls that hinder understanding. Glimpses of what this future looks like are evident in our national politics with its gridlock and demonization of the other side. And it’s a grim future indeed if this, or worse, is what awaits us. It’s a future where folks do more talking than listening, shouting over each other as if speaking loudest makes them right.

There likely won’t be a Jacob Marley to save us from this future, it’s up to each of us to hold ourselves and our representatives to the higher standard of civility that we should all pursue. In a recent column I asked for help in my journey to understand conservative viewpoints that just don’t make sense to me, to help me reconcile with my Republican roots. I thank those of you who emailed me or wrote letters to the editor in response to it and I look forward to continuing that conversation, respectfully, into the new year. The conversations that we have on the pages of the Summit Daily News are a gift to its readers and an opportunity to join in civil debate where all sides are represented.

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