Better Starting Points as We Try to Communicate with Each Other
So Here We Are
You may recall that a few weeks ago, we held national elections.
Turns out a lot of us are really angry at each other. Not a big surprise, all in all. But the level of divide and the strength of feelings across millions of people is a something of a surprise.
For a long time, many of us thought “the people” were not so far apart. It was just a lot of divisive talk by political and social opportunists. Not so much, in fact. We are today a pretty divided country. Divided by race, by location, by where we get our “news,” by personal philosophies, and more.
This would be unfortunate at any time, but especially so now. We have a once in a century pandemic and a crippled economy. America has fierce racial and social tensions and rising threats abroad. A little unity would be helpful. Can we ever get there?
Components for a Better Dialogue
I don’t know if we can diminish the divide or not, but I do know continuation at this level does not bode well. If we are not careful, we will produce a generation that thinks this is the standard for civil society. No rational person should welcome that.
Like many of you, I have taken part in a lot of conversations of late about where we are going as a country. Mostly with people who share my perspectives and positions. But also with some who do not agree with me. I found myself wondering how we could have useful discussions with mixed viewpoints.
What we have in our heads at the start of such conversations have a strong effect on how those conversations go. There are a couple of mindsets that that could be helpful for us going forward. No silver bullets, but they might help.
Everyone Is Not Me
It should not be surprising, but I am struck at how much we are all shaped by our personal experience. The tendency is to think our experience translates to everyone else’s experience. This is often unconscious, but still powerful. If position X is right for me, and if it serves my interest, that must be the case for everyone.
That is, of course, absolutely not the case. If we can keep this in mind, we might find better understanding why we come with such different start points.
If I am a Black parent of a teenager in a tough neighborhood, I know I need to have “the talk” with my son. The talk about how to avoid getting shot by a police officer. Pretty well every Black friend I have known has had this experience.
If their experience is largely to fear police, the idea of Defunding the Police has resonance. This could reduce a threat they have lived first-hand.
Suppose I am a White suburbanite, worried about rising crime in my metro area. Defunding the Police is nuts. Such an idea posits a direct threat to me and my family. Who in their right mind would even think about that?
Who is Right?
The answer, of course, is that they both are right. The trick is for us to realize both have solid reasons for their positions. How do we craft solutions that address both? Can we at least start with the concept that everyone has reasons to feel as they do?
It is worth the effort to find out what got them where they are, even if what got them is erroneously based. If we can figure out how they got there (or how we got where we are), we might find some way to progress.
What is the End State We Seek?
The other element I like to bring is to decide for myself what I hope to get from this conversation (Persuasion? Information? A connection?) Not every such discussion has to be a debate, complete with a winner. Although of course I am right and hope to help the other person see that….
Then by extension, I ask out loud, considering the topic, what is the end state those of us here seek for the nation? For the issue at hand, what do we want to accomplish? Don’t start with the policy issue and what we like or hate about that. Start with what we want accomplished writ large.
Might we agree, for example, that in a developed country, no one should lack for essential medical care? Nor should their life savings be wiped out by one illness? Might we agree that such a goal makes sense morally and as a practical good for the country?
We could, perhaps, agree on that sort of start point, in principle. We could find some common ground up front. NOW we can argue about how best to accomplish that. We can speak out about what side effects we find problematic for given solutions.
This is Not Fairy Dust
This sort of approach can be useful, but it’s not magic. Doing all this will not overcome hard core racism, or hatred of the Political Other. Nor will it defeat ill will or overcome those determined to argue on every point. And just for the record, there are times where debate, where verbal combat is precisely what is needed. But otherwise, let’s look for some room to figure each other out.
There are organizations like Braver Angels that have similar emphasis. But most such groups, as I understand them, focus on the communications. I am interested in breaking the logjam of political action. We need stuff done in this country, in a big way. If we cannot find a path to policy consensus on more issues, we are doomed. We face permanent warfare and stalemates in getting anything useful done.
Not the country I envision. How about you?
If you find this blog worthy of your time and curiosity, I invite you to do two things:
(1) Join the conversation. Your voice counts here. If you wish to mark your comment PRIVATE at the end of your statement, I will enter it as Anonymous.
(2) Share the word about this blog with friends and colleagues. Share a link in your emails and social media posts (https://agentsofreason.com). Let’s grow our circle.