Saturday, June 11, 2016

Talking to Opponents—Actually Talking!

Ah, political “con-versation” in America today:

My neighbor’s late night email howled: “How am I supposed to answer this pile of misinformation and lies?”

Miles, a Democrat, somewhat further Left than I, had gotten an article from his conservative Republican relative Bart about reasons to support Donald Trump. Miles had already fired off a fiery repost, reacting to assertions that Obama was “deliberately engineering decline of the military,” fomenting a “war on cops” and “flouting the will of the people,” to mention but a few.

So Miles had fired back: “You people have a twisted view of the world, and if you want to live in constant fear of ‘the other,’ be my guest . . .I can't understand how any reasonable human would allow this egotistical, manipulative, bully, con artist to get anywhere near the White House.”

Miles’s repost had the inevitable result: a still more incendiary email from Bart’s conservative Christian brother about Miles’s “godlessness," with a sharp turn into transgender bathroom issues—what passes for "debate" in contemporary America..

Incendiary Rhetoric

Thus raged the current polarized non-conversation between disagreeing Americans, each side hurling potshots at each other: fire and smoke, verbal grenades and harsh words—anything other than what once passed as debate and dialogue. 

Let me be clear: I agreed with Miles that the original article had some real misinformation (even disinformation) in it, and much distorted rhetoric. But underneath all that right-wing bramble were real feelings and some genuine concerns. Miles’s “answer” had been full of Liberal invective, not an engagement with the underlying issues. His email bristled with phrases like “You people” and the clear accusation that Trump supporters are simply “unreasonable.” 

Is there no alternative to this family-diving, friendship threatening barrage of words? Miles and I spent the next two days debating how to engage the debate in more constructive ways, like this:

Better Rules of the Road

1.  Start with agreements, if possible. If not, at least with recognition of the other’s concerns. “I can agree that frustration with our deadlocked national Establishment has generated much of power of the Trump campaign.” 

2.  Ask for further clarification: What makes you think this way? What led you to these conclusions? What reasons do you have for accepting these positions? 

3.  Then, and only then, question what you consider misrepresentations, exaggerations, disinformation or outright untruths. If possible, share concern over the issue at dispute. I can’t agree that Obama is trashing the Constitution with Executive Orders because other Presidents like Bush, Lincoln, and Jackson have set many precedents for such decrees. But I do agree that this area of Presidential power is very undefined and controversial. 

4.  State the way you see the situation, and why you see it that way. From my standpoint, Trump has made a number of extreme statements that imply a more serious disregard for the Constitution than any previous President or candidate—and give specific examples. 

5.  Avoid the comforting exhilaration of declaring the opposition ignorant, stupid, or immoral. Recognize that real people have real concerns, however poorly, in your opinion, they are expressed, or even how much factual error surrounds them. 

Communicating rather than winning

The above suggestions are not intended to “settle” arguments, but to encourage communication. This isn't just about being "nice" (though nice is usually better than nasty). Such rules of engagement open the possibility, difficult as may be, for challenging, communicating, and questioning. 

At this perilous point in our history, both Liberals and Conservatives (to use inadequate and clumsy labels) largely feel the other side is ignorant, misinformed, or immoral—or all three. This leads to the luxury of retreating into our own tribalistic echo chamber and congratulating our moral superiority and superior intelligence to each other. Our self-selected media outlets reinforce this. Moral superiority over the benighted other rules the day, in all directions. 

There are better ways to live. Better ways to have a political conversation. Better ways to be America.

And someone might actual be provoked to rethink something they believe. 

1 comment:

  1. I will have to wear these points on a wristband, as professional football quarter backs, at our dinner party tonight, so I can avoid my usual knee jerk response to usual Conservative prattle. Thanks for the guidelines to civil conversation
    Bob F