Shut Up and Listen
It’s in the news, it is everywhere. It is being framed as an epic political battle between good and evil. The good was one side of the perspective and its members, and the evil is everyone else. The one side’s antics are such that they are constantly at odds with about half the country. “Make a difference between the unclean and the clean,” the Bible says, and it seems like that is the mantra of one side or the other. It has become the focus of their whole lives. This way they try and “do good in a world” that sits diametrically opposed to what they say is their values. Like all the rest of their party, their Mafiosi, they believe what their leaders, their professors and mentors, taught and pursue their agenda with a special sort of zeal, an Adams vs. Jefferson sort of zeal. Only Jefferson and Adams didn’t have Twitter… or Facebook…or email or online articles.
Screaming and Violence Not the Answer
I will admit it, I am conservative and the people I encountered during this election were just as hostile as I have come to expect and, at times, matched. Over time though, both sides grew to become the digital version of the screaming hordes. You might have thought it was ancient Rome with the invasion of the Goths and Visigoths. In this election, I didn’t expect any confusion about positions, but the line between friend and foe has been blurred in a way that I had never seen, and I have been voting since Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Regan in 1980. It seems as though we have stopped seeing each other as human beings, and it changed the way we speak to one another. And it wasn’t a good change.
The Entire Process is Flawed
It took some time, (I’m pretty hard-headed) but eventually these conversations planted seeds of doubt in me about the whole process. My friends on social media failed to take the time to understand what I said, and in doing so, they were never able to find inconsistencies; they actually killed the dialog.
These realizations were indeed life-changing. Once I saw that neither side was the embodiment of God’s own truth, but was flawed human organizations, I couldn’t pretend otherwise. I couldn’t justify the actions I saw, especially the cruel practice of beating rally attendees, bystanders, and the particularly ugly way that developed of celebrating human tragedy. These shifts in my perspective contributed to a larger erosion of trust in our political, and eventually made it impossible to agree with either side’s behavior.
This has been at the forefront of my mind lately, because I can’t help but see our public discourse as simply destructive. We celebrate tolerance and diversity more than at any other time in memory, and yet we are more and more divided. Both sides want good things, the same things—justice, equality, freedom, dignity, and prosperity—but the path each desires to achieve these things is so one-sided it would please Adams and Jefferson. We’ve built a world of only “us and them,” only emerging from our foxholes long enough to lob rhetorical grenades at the other camp, or each other. We write off half the country as out-of-touch liberal elites or racist misogynist bullies.
We celebrate tolerance
and diversity more than at any
other time in memory,
and yet we are more and more divided.
Where is the nuance? Complexity seems to have been abandoned along with humanity, individual or shared. Even when someone does call for empathy and understanding for one side or the other, the conversation usually devolves into a debate about who deserves more empathy. All of us, we all routinely refuse to acknowledge the flaws in our positions or the virtues in our opponent’s. Compromise is anathema. We even keep a sharp eye out and target people on our own side if they dare question the party line. This way of living in the political world has brought us only cruel sniping, ugly deepening polarization, loss of friends, and even outbreaks of violence as seen on TV during the last election cycle. We were all children once and we know this path. It won’t take us where we want to go.
We write off half the
country as out-of-touch liberal
elites or racist misogynist bullies.
What gives me hope (just a little hope) is that we actually have the power to do something about this. The good news is it’s quite simple; the bad news is that it’s really hard. It is simple because it is all about talking, and it is terribly hard because we have to talk, and listen, to people we disagree with. It’s hard because we often can’t fathom how the other side came to their positions. It can be so hard because of righteous indignation, that seductive certainty that our perspective, our side is the right side. It’s hard because it means extending empathy and compassion to people who show us hostility and contempt. Yes, even when we aren’t sure they deserve it.
These are not our enemies, but rather our American brothers and sisters. I so get it, the impulse to respond in kind to evil actions is so tempting, but that isn’t who we want to be. It may be who we have become, but it isn’t who we can be. We can resist. And I will always be inspired to do so by those people I read about in history.
Check your history and look at the relationship between Jefferson and Adams. Once brothers-in-arms building a new nation, then the harshest of enemies, and then in their later years, they grew into the best of friends, and ultimately each dying on the same day, July 4, 1826. As history would have it, each expressed to friends that they would like to rekindle their lost friendship and developed a correspondence that lasted the last 14 years of their lives.
The Jefferson-Adams Approach
There was nothing special about getting back in touch. What was special was their approach. I thought about it a lot over the past few years and I found several things they did differently that made real conversation possible. These four things were small but powerful, and I now do everything I can to employ them in difficult conversations today.
First: Don’t assume bad intent
They had been horrible to each other in the election and sincerely believed they were doing the right thing. Assuming ill motives almost instantly cuts us off from really understanding why someone does and believes as they do. We forget that they’re human. It is easy to forget they have a lifetime of experience that has shaped their mind. We get stuck on that first wave of anger, and the conversation rarely moves beyond it. Yet when we assume positive or neutral intent, we give ourselves a much stronger framework for dialogue.
Second: Ask questions
When we engage people across philosophical or ideological divides, asking questions helps us understand the disconnect between divergent points of view. That’s so important because we can’t present effective arguments if we don’t understand where the other side is actually coming from. In kind, it gives them an opportunity to point out flaws in our positions. Yet asking questions serves a dual purpose; it signals to someone that they’re being heard. When was the last time you felt heard? When people stop accusing and start asking questions, you can’t help but automatically mirror them. Their questions give room to speak, but they also give permission to ask questions and to truly hear responses. It can fundamentally change the dynamic of conversation.
Third: Stay calm
This takes practice and patience, but it’s powerful. I knew people who, in the last election cycle, thought rightness justified rudeness— harsh tones, raised voices, insults, interruptions—but that strategy is ultimately self-defeating. Dialing up the volume and the vitriol is natural in stressful situations (primitive is easy when facing primitive), but it tends to bring the conversation to an inadequate, explosive end. When my friend’s discussion grows hard and pointed, now I refuse to escalate. Instead, I just change the subject. I tell a joke or recommend a book or gently excuse myself from the conversation. We all know the discussion wasn’t over, just paused for a time to bring us back to an even keel. People often mourn that digital communication makes us less civil, but there is one advantage that online conversations have over in-person ones. We have a buffer of time and space between us, and the people whose ideas we find so vexing. We can use that buffer. Instead of lashing out, we can pause, breathe, change the subject, or walk away, and then come back to it when we’re ready. Not every hill is worth dying on today.
Fourth: Simply make the argument
This might seem obvious, but one side-effect of having strong beliefs is that we sometimes assume that the value of our position is—or should be—obvious and that we shouldn’t have to defend our positions because they’re so clearly right and good that if someone doesn’t get it, it’s their problem. You say it’s not my job to educate them. But if it were that simple, we would all see things the same way. Just as with Jefferson and Adams, we are all a product of our upbringing, and our beliefs reflect our experiences. We can’t expect others to suddenly change their own minds. If we want change, we have to make the case for it.
Jefferson and Adams approached each other as human beings, and that was more transformative than the years of outrage and disdain they showed each other. I know that some might not have the time or the energy or the patience for extensive engagement, but as difficult as it can be, reaching out to someone you disagree with is an option that is available to all of us.
I sincerely believe that we can do hard things, not just for those with whom we disagree, but for us and our future. Escalating disgust and pig-headed conflict are not what we want for ourselves, or our country or our next generation. We’re all just human beings. We should be guided by that most basic fact, and approach one another with generosity and compassion.
Escalating disgust and pig-headed
conflict are not what we want
or our country or our next generation.
Each one of us contributes to the communities, the cultures, and the societies that we make up. The end of this spiral of rage and blame begins with one person who refuses to pander to these destructive, seductive instincts. We just have to decide that it’s going to start with us.
So, if this makes any sense to you at all, begin today.
SPEAK WITH A LIFE COACH IN BATON ROUGE
Frank Hopkins is a life coach in Baton Rouge who is certified as a Professional Coach (CPC) by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). Frank has helped numerous people to go through emotional change in a way that is positively transformative.