No one, myself included, seems to be doing a decent job of having a respectful conversation these days. We either agree (cue the glitter unicorns) or disagree (in which case yelling and sulfur fumes ensue).
I am neither the first nor the most articulate to point this out. There are many fantastic articles, as well as ancient texts, on achieving civil discourse. Yet still, we struggle.
Back when I was running the Democratic headquarters in Hancock County, I wrote this on the wall: “No one ever changed my mind by yelling at me.” I reminded the volunteers endlessly that the person with whom they were debating today would be the same person sitting next to them at the bean super come December — so they’d better think twice before being rude. I believe this.
I am also, currently, failing to live up to my own advice.
Lately, I have found myself shutting down conversations, tuning others out, and dismissing opinions (and if I’m honest, pretty much dismissing the person entirely) when their politics disagree with mine. I know this is not only morally suspect, but useless to boot. I’m not “winning” here. I know this. So why am I still doing it?
Well, for one thing, I’m usually pretty sure I am right. I’m not proud of that, but I own that it’s in my head. And I’m working on it.
More importantly, though, the stakes are so high. This isn’t an academic back and forth on something like, say, taxes. With taxes, I have some strong opinions, and I definitely still think I am right (I said I’m working on it), but I grant that there are things I don’t fully understand, and areas where my liberal do-gooder stance might, actually, be ineffective.
But this isn’t taxes. We’ve moved onto real-time life-and-death basic human rights, and the conversation has gotten weird.
There used to be some baseline givens, such as racism is evil and Nazis are the bad guys. Suddenly, we are in this upside-down place where these are no longer simply “understood.” Of course, that’s naive of me. Racism has always been a force in our society. It has always been this real. It’s just being openly talked about now. Frankly, bringing the conversation above ground is probably necessary in order to dismantle it. But it feels scary.
So how do we “go there?” I still believe that no one can change another’s mind by yelling at them. I also believe that hate is rooted in fear, and you certainly can’t eliminate fear by simply telling someone to get over it or spewing facts at them. If that worked, anyone sitting next to me on a plane, ever, would have a much more pleasant time of it. I know the plane is safe, I know that planes are safer than cars, my family members are pilots, nothing bad has ever happened to me (or anyone I know personally) on a plane. And yet I am a white-knuckle whimper-fest every single flight I take.
Ergo, I think we can rule out logic as the solution to this conundrum.
In their book “The Art of Possibility,” Ben and Rosamund Stone Zander suggest entering every situation with the assumption that the other person is working for what they genuinely believe to be for the best. This perspective allows one to get past the “me vs. them” construct, go to the real core of the issue and, potentially, find a genuine solution. This makes sense to me. Therefore, I am issuing myself a challenge.
For the next month, I will listen respectfully. For real. I will count to five before responding to any statement I find “challenging.” I will not allow hateful or racist/sexist statements to stand unchallenged, but instead of issuing rebuttals, I will ask questions. When I catch myself writing someone off, I will check myself and return to the conversation. I will not engage in social media battles.
In structuring this challenge, I’ve given myself a clear and attainable time frame and specific, measurable tasks. It’s like marathon training. I’ve also given myself, not just permission, but a mandate, to do something outside my norm. I’ll be keeping notes and reporting back. Where it’s not working, I’ll adjust. Where it is working, I’ll celebrate. At the end of the month, I can always extend the experiment.
If it interests you, you are welcome to join me. Give listening a whirl and let me know how it goes.
Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at email@example.com.