This is the second post in a series about discourse in 2020 and how to get it to a more civil, productive place (the first post is here and I’ll index the links at the bottom of these posts).
I think one of the big issues with communication right now is that we are not all having the same conversation. It may feel like we are, since we’re discussing the same trending topics or headlines or people and their actions, but we might as well have one person yammering about how to cook sweet potatoes and the other arguing why that sound you hear in your car is absolutely not the carburetor even if the internet says so, for how much we’re truly listening and meeting each other on the same wavelength. Obviously we’re coming at topics with different backgrounds in terms of research, education, cultural understanding, biases, and lived experiences, so there will always be varying interpretations and conclusions (that’s normal). But more and more, I feel like we don’t even realize what we’re fighting about, or really, if we actually disagree at all.
Around this time last year I read an article that referred to the “narcissism of small differences,” which was a new term for me (it shouldn’t have been, but I think I wasn’t paying attention the first few times I’d encountered it). It’s not generally constructive or interesting to talk with someone who agrees with you about everything. We may think it is, and we shelter ourselves in echo chambers as if seeking it out, but eventually, the very nature of discourse and political rhetoric is to exaggerate the differences between two groups to make clearer who is right and wrong, good or bad, or whatever other opposites you’d like. Most issues are not so cut-and-dry as a pro- / anti- stance, yet we position ourselves as if to hold one view, we cannot possibly hold another, and we point out instances of inconsistency as a weakness in argument rather than the complexity with which we need to regard humanity and policy.
The clip above from Futurama (or this one) sums up what truly centrist politics would look like, and so it is understandable to make a bigger deal of our differences for the sake of clarity and conviction. The polarization in debates cannot – and should not – carry over into actual governance, or you get exactly where we are: intransigent obstruction and unwillingness to compromise. Similarly, if we invoke emotional or cultural differences as making us fundamentally incompatible, that isn’t going to get smoothed over and immediately reconciled post-election, as tensions at mixed-politics family holidays the past four years might have demonstrated. It is essential for leaders to show the way with compromise, cooperation, and mutual respect, rather than stay in a war-like politicking mode, and rather than building a bridge between communities, the strategy seems to have been to burn even more bridges down. So we need to build those bridges back ourselves, and we can’t do that if we don’t even know what our divisions actually are.
I’ve been working on a flow chart for a while now (at least since the summer) and even though I constantly want to revise it, I’m going to put it here in its current form because I think it’s important to start somewhere. This chart assumes that both people in a conversation about public policy or a current event are coming into it with good faith arguments and believe their views to be reasonable. I’m going to discuss what that really means in another post, but let’s shorthand it here as saying these are not extremists (we’ll get to them in a future post).
One of the reasons our discourse falls off the rails so frequently is that we are jumping into conversations or topics without establishing our actual points of divergence in opinion. I think we move too quickly into problem-solving mode without exploring issues in depth, and we make assumptions about each others’ beliefs without confirming that we agree on certain points. Since the first step in conflict resolution is to Understand the Conflict, I think it’s important to really flesh issues out before leaping to anger or accusations of bad character.
Let’s take the example of childhood nutrition in conditions of poverty. The first step is to agree and understand why nutrition is important and establish that many children living in poverty are not getting adequate nutrition (we’re not arguing this point right now, just exploring it). Many people, leery of the suggestion that we increase taxation to better fund social welfare budgets, might jump immediately to statements about why it’s the parents’ fault for buying lower-quality food, share falsehoods they read on the internet about someone in the checkout line returning her child’s juice and getting sugar water so she could use her SNAP card on cigarettes, or start in on a totally unrelated topic, like their belief that recipients of social welfare benefits should have to pass drug tests to collect them. None of that is actually relevant or productive to the first step: is childhood nutrition important? And once you agree that it is important, don’t go backwards. Don’t counter with digressions about how much sugar is in fruit juice anyway or trivia about the caloric content of a McDonald’s salad. Imagine this phase as walking through a series of gates together and stay on your path.
The next sticking point is whether the issue is actually a problem, and this is a much bigger area of difference than a lot of us realize. It is deeply unsettling to invest time and energy in debating ways to improve society, only to realize the person you’re talking with doesn’t care about an issue because it disproportionately affects poor, Black children in urban environments and they don’t particularly care about them. It is again not helpful to immediately jump to this assumption or call them racist when you’ve only gotten through one gate together, and in reality, they may care very deeply about children going hungry or getting poor nutrition, but believe it is not an issue the government can adequately address. Exploring it together, in fact-based and unemotional ways can establish agreement.
As a hint: what affects the least among us affects us all. Use the “last girl” principle that arises from Gandhi’s teachings:
“Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest [person] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to [them]. Will [they] gain anything by it? Will it restore [them] to a control over [their] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.”
– Mahatma Gandhi, 1948, in one of the last notes he left (adjusted for gender neutrality)Source: Mahatma Gandhi – The Last Phase, Vol. II (1958), p.65 (via)
Policies are not just and right until every last little girl of the lowest background and greatest hardships is living in freedom and security, and we need to always keep this Last Girl in mind when discussing broad societal issues. By extension, if you meet the needs of this last girl, everything flows upstream to improve all of society along the way. That was a lengthy way of saying that by and large, mass suffering is always a problem, and if you’re discussing issues of suffering with people who don’t care about others, you can’t effectively move through any other gates together until they do.
Many conversations should probably stop at this point because the disagreement is not one of policy, funding, logistics, or lack of information, but a fault of compassion. My next post (which I will link back here when it’s live) will explore how and why compassion fails us, but in the meantime, it’s important not to believe someone lacks compassion just because they disagree with your assessment of an issue. That’s where the rest of this flowchart can help keep you on the same page together without devolving into insults or character assaults.
The most direct problem-solving route would follow the yellow circles and not digress. It would be clear, uncomplicated policy, swiftly enacted, which should make it immediately obvious why that’s never possible in the real world. No issue exists in a vacuum, no people live uncomplicated lives, and no society in the history of humanity can or should unanimously agree on all issues. Conflict is inevitable, but it doesn’t need to be hostile. It can actually be extremely productive and add shades of nuance and deeper understanding to issues if navigated respectfully. Further, conflict resolution is an incredibly empowering and fruitful process that draws you closer to others and yourself and provides great insights into humanity. So how do we get to meaningful discourse, instead of just raising our hackles and blood pressure at each other?
The more clearly your discourse is organized, the less likely you will fall off into the pitfalls of obfuscation, what-about-ism, false equivalencies, straw man arguments, or other defense mechanisms that we use to deflect uncomfortable truths (we’ll get into all these soon). We often undermine our own arguments by inserting the wrong information at the wrong time, such as making an emotionally-wrought appeal to sympathy, describing how hard it is for a hungry child to concentrate in school when everyone already agrees that access to healthy, nutritious, and adequate food is essential. Or we do what I just did, in conflating hunger and nutrition, which are actually two very separate, but inextricably linked issues. When we offer this type of plea, we think we are arguing our case and appealing to a person’s better nature, but we may be crystallizing their resistance instead. “Who ever said I don’t care about children going hungry?” they say, or internally, “I give money to the food bank every week. I don’t know why this fool is blaming me for parents wasting their SNAP money on junk food!” When misused, this rhetoric style builds resentment, the sense of being misunderstood or vilified, and it makes us much less likely to reach any kind of consensus or compromise. So we should resist the type of statements that may feel really good to say out loud (Subtext: Look how much I care about children’s nutrition!) and focus on understanding what we’re actually discussing and why.
Here is as good a place as any to interject this reminder: our arguments with family and friends, strangers on Twitter or Facebook, or the comment section of articles or Instagram photos will have little to no effect on actually changing opinions or the world if they are not conducted productively. When I sit down and really dig into a political discussion with my father, a pool of representatives is not sitting on the front porch waiting to hear what we’ve agreed to, pens quivering with anticipation to draft or quash legislation. Nor are we, I assume average people reading this blog post, cable television pundits or mass media journalists expected to report our conclusions to an anxious audience so we can shape thought and policy. But talking through issues does change our relationships (as every communication should) with each other and ourselves. If we are never transformed by our interactions, why are we having them? We gain insight into each others’ beliefs and thoughts, we learn through others’ experiences, we effectively see through another’s eyes / think through another’s mind, and that can be incredibly powerful and illuminating.
In the flowchart, I marked out the sort of “side quests” of conversation that often derail the journey. For some people, these are the whole story, as they aren’t looking to solve a particular problem, only to establish blame, or to argue that you going on about childhood nutrition is insensitive and delusional when they think the government should prioritize emergency COVID relief so they don’t lose their small business. They aren’t wrong, even if it feels cruel in the moment, but there is a disconnect on what you’re actually discussing that will cause friction until it’s resolved.
When you find a conversation getting heated, it can help to pause and try to pinpoint where you disagree. Have you jumped ahead many steps to what you assume the fallout of a legislative action would be (slippery slope thinking)? Have you digressed into abstractions or hard-line stances, such as “I believe in states’ rights” or “I think the government has a duty of care to its citizens” without exploring what those statements mean in this context? Precision of language and thought is important if you want to gain understanding or communicate effectively with other people. Calling someone a racist might feel momentarily satisfying, but respectfully helping them understand why their actions perpetuate racism and inequality can be life-changing instead. We take these firm stances to make it easier on ourselves to support or oppose propositions, but it is in the murkiness and minutiae that we find real substance and innovative thinking.
Going through the gates together on specific issues can help you resolve a public policy disagreement (there is another model for interpersonal conflict that I’ll get into later in this series). Finding commonalities of concern can be enlightening and foster closeness or unity. Step back and think about your goals: do you want your uncle to concede that he’s a hateful racist, or do you want to plant seeds in your uncle’s conscience that eventually lead him toward antiracism with careful tending? What strategies will get you closer to your relational goals, and what will push you further apart? Are you asking questions to challenge one another, or to gain a better understanding? Did you say something because you just wanted to say it, or because you think it will have some impact on the conversation? And what are you doing to protect your relationships and maintain trust and goodwill in the meantime, so that there can be another conversation?
I can’t stand the little cartoons that people post where a smug character rattles off a paragraph of “well actually…” quips to clarify misunderstandings about an issue (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you are lucky). So I urge you not to be pedantic or condescending as you force someone down the yellow circle path, as it’s not necessarily where a conversation wants or needs to go. But you can use it as a guide to find where you’ve disagreed and back-track to the last gate you walked through together, building agreement and trust as you do.
If someone is arguing that the government can’t possibly pay for everything proposed without taxing them personally so much they can’t pay their mortgage, they may really believe it to be true and not understand the nature of corporate tax laws, but that doesn’t mean they’re looking for a lecture on taxation. Maybe they believe childhood nutrition is as urgent an issue as you do, but that the government is not the best way to address it, as they’re already using taxpayer money in a poorly-regulated and wasteful way (these are hypotheticals). Calling someone a racist or saying they don’t care about Black children’s lives is not helpful here, if they think they’re discussing program inefficiencies or the limited role of government. But on the flip side, if you go through all the gates together, and the bottom line is, “Yes, sure it’s a problem, and I feel terrible for them, but what can you do / it’s not my fault / we all have our problems / I’m not going to apologize for being white / not everyone deserves to succeed / someone has to dig the ditches etc.” you might have uncovered the classism, racism, or other forms of bigotry that underlie a frightening amount of policy and social beliefs in America. You also might have just exhausted the conversation or hit a foundation of identity that resists further exploration.
If you reach that bedrock, you aren’t going to get any further debating the details of how to gird against the law of unintended consequences or why allocating still more money could include appropriate oversight or meaningful change. Because those need to become conversations about compassion, empathy, and humanity instead – which I will address in the next post.
As a caveat, it’s crucial the recognize the difference between getting overwhelmed (or frustrated or bored) with a conversation, having reached a point where it’s no longer useful to keep discussing, and using hostility to shut it down. When I was a little girl, two years younger than my brother, he would often get tired of playing games or doing activities long before I did. He’d want to stop and move on to something more interesting to him, but he didn’t know how to do it, so he’d pick a fight, break something, or just randomly hit me so I’d run off crying and he wouldn’t have to play anymore. My parents talked with him about it, and once they realized he wasn’t ever trying to hurt me or maliciously break our toys, but just wanted an excuse to move on, they gave him the language to do that without it becoming ugly or hurtful between us. They also emphasized to me how important it was to respect him when he said he wanted to do something different and not catastrophize the end of games, so we didn’t resent each other or have every interaction devolve into fighting and tears. I think our society would benefit from accepting unfinished conversations more often, recognizing that real shifts in thought or worldview take time and reflection, and make it okay for someone to say they want or need to tap out without reading anything more into their reluctance to continue. I am emphatically not saying “agree to disagree,” but rather, “we’ll go again another time.”
It is so easy to fall down a rabbit hole of disagreement, where we all thrash around through inflamed rhetoric and stomp away before it comes to personal attacks and blows (or not), everyone feeling unheard and angry, that we may not realize how preventable hostility is. As established in the last post, that hostility to new ideas and each other is the goal of divisive political rhetoric, and the less we really communicate, the easier we are to control, manipulate, and deceive. We may not come out agreeing no matter what we do, but let’s make sure to do it on our own terms, expressing our genuine thoughts and feelings, and above all, to know what we’re really talking about to avoid total misunderstanding.
Previously in this series:
– 1) I am done biting my tongue