NaBloPoMo 2018: What I’m Learning
Families gathering for Thanksgiving present a perfect opportunity to practice some excellent communication skills. How we each show up—generous, combative, kind, resentful, curious, or judgmental—will determine our experience and that of those around us.
For this post, I refer to a short, accessible list of tips for conducting ourselves optimally among friends and family with whom we disagree. It’s from The American Interest in February 2016, “The Seven Habits of Highly Depolarizing People” by David Blankenhorn. I recently joined an organization he founded, Better Angels, “a bipartisan citizen’s movement to unify our divided nation.” I list here his 7 habits and my interpretation thereof.
1. Criticize from within. “In other words, criticize the other—whether person, group, or society—on the basis of something you have in common.” This is where DB invokes Abraham Lincoln’s reference to “the better angels of our nature” in his first Inaugural address. Honestly I don’t know what he means here, but I have decided to take it as a recommendation to find common ground. For instance, maybe we can all agree that our current healthcare system is deeply flawed and needs reform, and start our debate there.
2. Look for goods in conflict. Rather than accepting any false dichotomy of all good and right (your position) versus all bad and wrong (my position), which is the definition of polarizing, we can look for what’s good and right on both sides. As a progressive, my opinions and positions revolve around inclusion, equality, and lifting up the oppressed. I imagine my conservative friends’ chief concerns are individual autonomy, personal responsibility, and preservation of traditions. If we withhold our usual default judgments of one another, we can recognize the importance of each and all of these core values. We can also hold space for how they sometimes compete and conflict.
3. Count higher than two. Again, away with the false dichotomies and binary, all-or-nothing thinking. We can do better than oversimplified arguments like single payer versus free market healthcare, or “You want a capitalist free for all” versus “You want to strangle us all with regulations.” This point feels like a natural progression from the first two. If we can first agree on some common perspectives, and allow that the ‘other side’ has at least one valid point of view, then we may be more likely to look together toward a more nuanced conversation/negotiation about potential solutions.
4. Doubt. This one is about humility. We must practice holding space for the possibility that we don’t know everything, that we could be wrong about something, or a lot of things. This is admitting that we each always have something to learn, and we may need to evolve and adapt our position based on some new learning. “Doubt—the concern that my views may not be entirely correct—is the true friend of wisdom and (along with empathy, to which it’s related) the greatest enemy of polarization… Doubt often supports true convictions based on realistic foundations, just as doubtlessness is nearly always an intellectual disability, a form of blindness.”
5. Specify. Avoid and shun overgeneralization. Blankenhorn invites us to consider four ways to do this.
a. Practice a “persistent skepticism about categories.” Left and Right, Conservative and Liberal, even Republican and Democrat—avoid labeling as if all members of each of these categories or groups are carbon copies of all others. “It’s… worth remembering that, in many cases, creative and categorical thinking are at odds with each other.” Think about your friends who listen to both country and hip hop music, or those who are socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Pigeonholing serves nobody.
b. Consider each issue separately and on its own terms. Avoid applying broad and heavy ideological frameworks to topics like healthcare, gun violence, immigration, or LGBTQ rights. Again, this practice depends on the other habits: finding common ground, counting higher than two.
c. Privilege the specific assertion (including the empirically valid generalization) over the general assertion. To me this means evidence. It means objective data; we must find facts that we agree to be demonstrably true, on which we agree to found our debate. We are allowed to have and state our opinions, but we must acknowledge that they are opinions and not necessarily empiric truth.
d. Rely first and foremost on inductive reasoning. [Deductive reasoning works from the more general to the more specific…Inductive reasoning works the other way, moving from specific observations to broader generalizations and theories.] This method of thinking and speaking, I think, may be less susceptible to bias, especially if we try our best to be objective in our observations. It is the difference between “you have a fever, severe fatigue, and body aches that started all of a sudden; you were recently in close contact with someone eventually diagnosed with influenza, and you were not vaccinated—you probably have flu” and “flu is going around, you feel sick, you must have the flu.”
In general these practices are extremely difficult, and require significant attention and effort. In the face of relationships with emotional baggage, raised armor, and close quarters, they feel that much more challenging and impossible.
6. Qualify (in most cases). Allow for our statements and assertions to be less definitive, more nuanced. This is a corollary to practicing doubt. Prepare to hold space for exceptions, to discuss how one size of anything really does not fit all, and things are never as simple and clear-cut as we would like. “Of course, in today’s world of dueling talking points and partisan political warfare, qualifying—in the sense modifying or limiting, often by giving exceptions—is frequently treated as a sign of insufficient zeal and perhaps even wimpiness. But for the serious mind, the opposite is true. To qualify is to demonstrate competence. And for the highly depolarizing person, to err is human; to qualify, to divine.”
7. Keep the conversation going. Relationships live and die by communication. Communication is complex and difficult. If we are to save and nurture our families and democracy, we must exert the energy to speak kindly, listen for understanding, seek shared goals, and see one another as fellow worthy humans rather than abstract enemies. Avoidance may keep things quiet, but it does not facilitate true peace. Engagement does not necessarily mandate confrontation. We must learn to do this better.
I return to this list often, and find myself straying from the practices in my everyday thoughts and interactions. Right now I’m really working on not calling people names in my head, so I’m less likely to do it out loud or on social media. This is what I expect of visitors to my Facebook page, so I feel obligated to walk the talk. Some days I fail—the plane goes down in crimson flames of ad hominem contempt and rage. Nobody’s perfect. So that’s why lists are helpful. Should we expect to uphold all seven habits equally well all the time? No. And our families, communities, and country will be better for our honest efforts anyway.