Exploring the Rules of Engagement for Healthier Political Discourse, First Query
How fascinating! I thought this series would be so easy to write… I spend so many hours every day deliberating on how to talk to people, fantasizing about successful encounters, and preparing mindful defenses against verbal attacks. Yet crickets have chirped here for two weeks, and even now as I type, I feel almost overcome with apprehension.
The Better Part of Valor…
I had this lofty goal last month to seek out and engage in person, all of my friends on ‘the other side.’ I even sent a card to a couple of them on the other side of town, asking if I could come to visit and “talk.” I feel an urgency to reconcile and reconnect. But today I realize that you can’t force it. Sometimes it’s just too uncomfortable. You never know what the other person will say, or what you will say, that will trigger one or both of you and emotionally hijack the whole encounter. So sometimes it’s best to just not go there.
Meanwhile, Back At the Ranch
But what can we do in the meantime? How can we train now, to make it easier in the future? It seems somewhat like exercise to me. There is an app called TRX Force (I have no interests in this business), a twelve week progressive strength and interval training program using those torturous straps that hang from the ceiling. When I first started the program with my trainer, I dreaded every session. The shortness of breath, the shaking, the pain, gaaaagh!! Every session early on, I secretly hoped she would let me off the hook. But I also knew that with her support, I could overcome the discomfort and finish. I have gotten through every session, some more easily than others. Last Tuesday was Day 2 of Week 11. I felt so much weaker and less motivated than usual that day (all this stress, grrrr), and it was the hardest workout yet. The ‘during’ part SUCKED. My biceps and quads felt like jell-o melting off of their bones. Then afterward, the victory of accomplishment filled me with pride. It lit a new intrinsic fire, and my home workouts now are harder and longer than ever before.
Maybe it’s the same for talking politics. Just thinking of encounters with ‘the other side’ can fill us with dread and tension. We catastrophize immediately, not only about what they might say, but at how it might unleash torrents of our least controllable emotions. So we instinctively run the other way. What if we could train to withstand this discomfort? What if we could find a safe space to practice, so we might feel stronger when challenged for real? I propose two methods here.
We all know the satisfaction and comfort of echo chambers. Seeing, hearing, and reading that which validates our existing positions feels so good. But the farther we regress here, the harder it becomes to tolerate a dissenting view. We must resist this temptation; we are called to be more disciplined than this. I have friends and family who post articles and videos from sights like Conservative Fighter and Red State. I find the headlines inflammatory, and my initial reaction is to cringe, dismiss, and move on.
Lately I have resolved to open at least one of these posts every few days. To walk the talk of reaching across the divide, I must try seeing from others’ point of view. These are my friends, people I grew up with, my colleagues. What about these stories and articles appeals to them? In the privacy of my home, at times of my choosing, I can practice opening my mind to a potential partial truth from any source. I learned from life coaching a long time ago that, “we are all right, and only partially.”
In no way does opening my mind to possible other truths mean that I abandon skepticism or critical appraisal. It does mean, however, that I practice excluding prejudice. It means looking and listening with objectivity as much as possible. “I have to pace myself,” a friend told me recently. Yes.
In a recent episode of Bill Maher’s show, he interviewed the controversial alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos, during which he admonishes his audience, “Don’t take the bait, liberals.” I think I agree. The goal here is eventually to rise above the reflexive, emotionally hijacked state. When I feel my brow furrow, lips curl, heart rate accelerate, and armpits sweat, I know I’m close to my limits. I can choose to disengage and try again next time. Just like with TRX Force, my tolerance and openness core will strengthen the longer I stick with the program. I can then engage with an intact and rational intellect, guided by my core values of connection and shared humanity, seeking common interests and goals.
Uphold the Devil’s Advocate
Since the election, I often feel attacked by people on ‘my side’ whenever I suggest that ‘the others’ may not all be racist and misogynist xenophobes. It’s not safe in some of my own circles to consider the humanity of the other side. This refusal to consider multiple points of view, even among those who mostly agree with us, seriously threatens our capacity for meaningful discourse, from the inside out. The echo chambers reverberate ever louder, drowning out our intellectual and emotional calling for generosity and connection. Us vs. Them group-think oppresses, and it’s dangerous to our dialogue. I wonder if moderates on the right also experience this.
Hereafter, I resolve to stand up a little taller in defense of people in general. When I hear broad brush generalizations, I will play Devil’s Advocate and speak up for a valid alternative point of view. I will ask questions starting with phrases like, “What if they also…” and “What is a more generous assumption we can make about…” I hope more of us can practice holding this precious space. Making room for another’s point of view does not weaken our own. Respectful debate of dissenting opinions makes us more agile and articulate. And the best place to practice is first within our own tribes.
I had a list of ideals for this series, like “Rehumanize the ‘Others’” “Mind your limits,” and “Stay in Curiosity.” It’s hard to separate and prioritize them; as I think of any one, the others inevitably intertwine. So it will take me a while between posts to disentangle my thoughts. Thank you for your patience and your feedback. Maybe we can all be training buddies on this long journey.