I’m sure you’ve engaged in many political arguments lately.
I am writing this as a letter to myself – the angry man who spends hours fighting with his own family and strangers online about their stance on healthcare, civil rights, and what it means to be an American.
I’m not a psychologist or a communications professor. I’m just someone who is sick to my stomach and angry with every single person who is responsible for this political climate. Which happens to include me.
I got into a pretty heated argument (via Facebook :/) with someone I knew briefly growing up. It escalated quickly and I’m not sure I ever had a chance to make a point after I violated the basic rules of arguing with someone who has an opposing viewpoint.
I can’t just sit quietly though. There is a huge difference between having your own opinion and being simply uninformed. There is a major difference between empirical, undisputed data, and emotional opinions. And there is an ongoing brainwashing via the media to manipulate our animal emotions and turn us against each other in horrible ways.
So I fight with these people. I want to change these people in my heart. Because they are wrong and they are the reason our country is so divided.
That’s what I’ve been telling myself, anyway. But I hit a wall the other day when I was arguing with my own mother, presumably making her cry, about something that wasn’t even politically related. I’ve fucking lost it.
I thought, how is this all going to end? Do I really want to cut off every single person that has a different opinion than me? I don’t know. On one hand I think they are to blame. On the other – if my position is that I want to educate people and bring them together against the people who are really hurting us instead of contributing to the fight between every day citizens – then I am doing a horrible fucking job.
I might be “winning” arguments here and there but nobody is better for it. No one on the other side is going to walk away taking anything I said to heart. I’ve attacked them and put them in a position to disregard everything I said because my delivery was so unskillful and they never felt heard.
In this current political climate, in the current state of American camaraderie, for someone to admit that their guy is bad would be the same to them as admitting that my guy is good. There is no admission of bad apples. There is only deflection to the other bad oranges. If you attack Trump then they will respond with Hillary. No conversations can take place when we are all fighting to the death not to be the ones who are wrong.
We are all wrong.
We are all losing.
So, how do we walk away from heated political arguments more informed and without breaking relationships with people?
I developed a great pool of research in the last twenty or so fights I’ve gotten into with people from the “other side.” It always goes south for the same few reasons. The biggest takeaway – people are actually more willing to discuss their opinions than we think. They just don’t want to feel attacked.
I grew up a Republican. I was diehard. But I never knew why. I just heard things my dad would say and repeated them as if they were my own. The news networks we watched leaned to the right and the radio shows my dad listened to in the workshop were also very conservative. I idolized my dad growing up and wanted to be just like him. Naturally, I adopted his language. I’m sure he had the same experience as a child. And his dad before him.
And this is the first thing to remember:
We are very much the products of our environment.
My wife, Alexis, was telling me this morning that she always thought the NBA was dying off and the NHL was the biggest sport in the world – because she lived in Buffalo. Because they didn’t have a basketball team. Because hockey was everything.
Her environment shaped her opinion. She grew up with that belief based on the relevant information around her and formed an opinion that she thought was as good as fact. No one inside her circle would argue that she was wrong, nor would they say she had any bad intentions for thinking the way she did.
Meanwhile, my buddy living in Oakland would pretty much guarantee you that the only professional team that matters is the Golden State Warriors.
The facts – the NBA averages 5 times more viewers than the NHL.
That means that even if you consider yourself to be the most informed person on Earth, there is someone else in another town with a completely opposing opinion that thinks they are just as right as you are.
We have to consider that everyone believes their sources. As such, everyone thinks their information is “correct”.
How do we overcome this?
By acknowledging the individually-specific truth of someone’s life – recognizing that growing up in one part of the country would mean that you had an entirely different baseline perspective than someone else on the other side of the States.
“Wow, you didn’t have a basketball team. I can see why you thought the NBA was no big deal…” – and then pointing to your own specific life experience that is different than theirs – “We don’t even have a hockey team. Unless you consider San Jose, which we don’t. Nobody in Oakland even talks about the NHL…”
You get the point. The acknowledgment and the ease of this convo would be natural between people because the stakes are very low and there is little risk of being “wrong”. But we don’t usually engage in political discussions with this much ease, since we are so adamant about getting our own points across.
When I was getting into it with Henry he told me that he was able to walk up to a construction site and ask for a job. He was granted the job. That experience let him walk away with the narrative that if you want something badly enough you simply have to ask for it. And that anyone who doesn’t have a job only finds him or herself in that position because they are unwilling to walk down to the local construction site and ask for work.
Now that is absolutely true for him. And because of his experience he believes what he says 100%. I have to acknowledge what he is saying. That’s very important. Not as a last sentence (like I did) but as a lead. This is no different than Alexis thinking the NBA was a dinosaur of a sport. Except that I’m assuming Henry is a bad person for not considering other people who grew up differently than him.
Here’s where I could have introduced something specific. First, by acknowledging the truth in his statement – “I really respect your ability to make something for yourself. That deserves a lot of credit and you deserve what you have…” and then I point to someone else’s truth that is different than his – “What do you think you would have done if you lived in a town that was still economically depressed and didn’t have active construction? Or any jobs available for that matter?”
Someone might say, “Well then move somewhere that does.” To which you could kindly ask how much it cost them last time they picked up everything and moved somewhere else. And where, specifically, someone from poverty would come up with the money to relocate? Many of these people don’t even have one working vehicle within their whole family.
And you can ask them – “What should these people do?” Not like an asshole trying to catch someone in a lie but like someone who is genuinely looking for an answer.
“What should these people do?” is a pretty damn hard question to answer though. Not even politicians can figure it out. Obviously. So a person is left with a choice to acknowledge that perhaps their previously unrealized privilege of living in a place that has active construction contributed slightly to their ability to change their own fate. Which will hopefully lead to some compassion for those who don’t share the same circumstances.
The next thing to remember in these conversations (arguments, let’s be honest) is that people are going to enter with their own prejudices. That’s a product of being alive. Instead of attacking them for being “racist” or “sexist” or “close-minded” ask them why one specific thing bothers them more than another, similar thing.
We can call this,
Why this and not that?
The argument that people are abusing welfare by being on drugs has been used for decades. It was a brilliant story painted during a political race to turn people against government intervention in, well, basically anything. Our hard earned tax dollars being shot straight into a junkie’s arm. And the visual was so successful that it has been adopted as the truth – that the abuse of welfare by drug users is so bad that all of welfare should be discontinued and/or the recipients should be drug tested.
God knows I’ve used that argument before.
You don’t even need to get into the specifics of the costs of testing every one. Although, if you’re curious, there have been MANY studies on this exact argument. In all of the studies I’ve read, the average % of welfare recipients that were found to be using drugs was around 2.5%. The national average for non-welfare users? 8%. And these were tests run by extremely conservative states – costing them hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars instead of the few hundred dollars per family it would have cost them in welfare aid.
Back to the argument.
You can acknowledge their point – “Yeah it sucks that certain people abuse the welfare system. It really bothers me too.” And then ask a question that helps put it in greater perspective – “What is it about the people who abuse welfare that bothers you more than the corporate CEOs who took tax payer dollars for a bailout and then gave themselves raises?”
It’s a simple question. And it comes down to values. If you’re opposed to one person cheating you then you’re opposed to all people cheating you. And it may just be that you’ve never taken the time to truly think about how your values relate to your political preferences. If the argument is that we don’t want to give money to people who don’t deserve it then it’s a logical position that should apply to all people who are picking our pockets. Which happens to include those corporate CEOs who were responsible for one of the largest depressions in American history. We are busy hating each other and arguing about 2.5% of people who are earning a few hundred dollars a month that maybe they shouldn’t be while the big guys are scraping millions off our own backs.
At this point, you’re heated. I’m heated. I’m always heated. Which brings me to my next point –
Avoid personal attacks.
I need to read this every morning when I wake up. I tend to attack the human and not the issue. Even if you’re right, even if you absolutely nailed someone, the conversation is effectively over.
I took a shot at my friend Henry and made some assumptions based on the very little information I had on him. Some of it might have been true but a lot of it was actually just mean. It pissed him off. He came back at me even harder. Told me I should stop acting like I know anything about him. And he was right. Instead of simply asking him what about his own experience led him to hold the beliefs that he has, I filled in the blanks for him and discredited myself as someone that would listen to what he had to say.
I should have stuck to the issues at hand. If you’ve ever been to couple’s therapy, you know this already.
A perfect tie in to the next thing to keep in mind –
Don’t be accusatory.
You can catch someone dead to rights doing something but the second you make an accusation against them they will deny it desperately. It wouldn’t matter if they were holding your watch in their hand, the second you say, “You stole my watch!” they come back with, “No I didn’t, this is my watch!” Nobody wants to be put on the spot and have to admit to being wrong. We have to give people space to resolve their flaws in their own way. All we can do is provide information. That’s it.
The difference between informing someone of a potential blindspot and making a point to call them out in front of everyone is the difference between inspiring someone to be more informed and turning them off forever.
When we inform without offending we allow an alternative thought to be placed in someone’s mind that can grow exponentially over time and contribute to a potential change in mindset.
Again, this is assuming that our goal is to live in a greater state of harmony and understanding. Actually, that’s too PC for me. My goal is to get conversations going that lead people on all sides of the political spectrum to realize we are all being collectively fucked by a very small handful of people in power that actually care nothing about us as individuals. They would rather watch us tear each other to pieces than give up the power they have engineered over us.
I hear people say all the time they want to live in peace. But some of these people are the most condescending MFers I have ever talked to. If we want peace and understanding then someone has to be first. I don’t win points because I am angry with everyone who doesn’t see it like I do, therefore I sit on the sidelines and wait for them to shape up. I have to act. And if action alone isn’t successful then I have to act skillfully. Which means I have to be willing to make adjustments when something isn’t working and put my GD huge ego aside and fight for progress that I have been previously unable to make.
Don’t have a hypothesis going in.
Henry told me that he dropped out of college because he had an unexpected daughter when he was only 18 years old. He had to bust his ass to provide for his new family that probably derailed him from his plans. I had no idea. I just assumed he was another Midwestern racist that associated “welfare” with “lazy black people” because I’ve known many people like that growing up. But his reasoning against welfare is that he feels he had to overcome terrible odds to provide and that if he did it, other people should to. And that his tax dollars shouldn’t contribute to enabling people not to work.
If I remove my hypothesis, if I take away my agenda, I can see this man and I can feel his pain. I might disagree wholeheartedly with his beliefs outside of this individual experience but I respect what he did for his family and the life he created.
I gain nothing by cutting him down and making him feel bad for who he is. I can only hope to inform him that certain parts of the country don’t even have that chance. Normally, I like to fight. And I like to win. But I only win this fight when I am open and understanding. Because if Henry and I can walk away a little more aware of people we had been previously generalizing then maybe it can lead to more understanding for both of us.
We only “win” the political argument when both sides walk away eager to learn more.
How do we make this, a thing?
We have to start sharing information between people, not media. When I learn a person’s story and understand their position based on their experience, from their own mouth – as opposed to assuming they all think like Bill O’Reilly – I get to understand another human. I make a real connection. A bond that is bigger than politics or partisanship.
The last point –
Never make it about partisanship.
Most people don’t even really know what the Democratic or Republican platforms stand for. You hear Big Gov’t vs Small Gov’t and other vague overviews but what does that really mean? How many of us actually know?
Let me admit right here and now that I know very little of the intricacies of our government and its major parties. And the more I learn, the less I feel like I belong to any of them.
Once you put someone into a party – refer to them as a D or an R – you limit their ability to express vast and potentially contradictory values. It’s important to remember that a person is more than a political party. We join parties because we are afraid our voices won’t be heard otherwise, not because we endorse every single thing they stand for.
I’ll admit, I’m a registered Independent. I know that makes me “useless” in primaries but I can’t commit to either side wholeheartedly. And if I’m not in 100 then I’m not in at all. I HATE when people assume I’m a bleeding heart Dem because I believe all Americans have the right to healthcare. That isn’t politics. That’s caring about people. I also believe we should be able to create whatever quality of life we think we deserve. As hard as you want to work, you can. I love that about America. So then I’m a Republican? No. Because I also don’t feel good about acquiring wealth – as a result of my absolute fucking sheer stroke of luck being born into an educated family – while the rest of the country falls deeper into poverty. It’s not okay. How can I help? What can I do to make this country better? Questions we would all ask more if we weren’t constantly pitted against each other and fighting over scraps.
The more we talk to each other the less we rely on information from those trying to control us. This is what American is supposed to be. Not a bunch of bitter, entitled people who would rather watch reality TV and fight with each other on FB than take the time to get informed and learn how to help one another. Where is the American pride?