“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”
Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics
Many of you are right now losing friends, fracturing relationships and disowning family because of politics. And it doesn’t end on November 6. Indeed, many of you will then be sharing time and homes with family and friends over Thanksgiving… a time for thanks that may instead be fraught with bitter disappointment or excessive celebration. In an era when the country is increasingly divided, our ability to maintain and nurture long term relationships with our family, friends and neighbors is essential. In this guide, I encourage you to use conversation to embrace difference and deepen your relationships, and offer conversational approaches and attitudes you should be considering.
The Intersecting Monologues
Conversation is not a mediation or any facilitated compromise toward soporific consensus. Nor is conversation a debate, the participants to which are committed to their points of view. Conversation is not a forum for rhetoric when used solely to persuade and not to allow for persuasion. Doris Lessing asserted that there is no such thing as dialogue, only intersecting monologues. Yet I would suggest that there is a rich, vibrant place for genuine conversation, where two or more people share beliefs, opinions, memories, feelings and experiences and are open enough to enter this arrangement willing to leave it slightly different.
The trap we fall into is to treat our conversational partners as someone to be persuaded. In other words, we treat them as a prop to our own ideas, comments and assertions, expecting them to bend to our monologue. Only by being aware of our self-centered expectations are we able to rid ourselves of them and approach conversation as a collaborator, not a dictator.
Relating to Them
Symptomatic of our partisan divide and the ad hominem attacks on our former friends is a lack of compassion and empathy. As I point out in a post here, compassion is easiest to feel when you have a sense of commonality with someone else.
The converse is also true, such that the more we segregate ourselves, whether emotionally, intellectually, geographically, economically, the more we lose our ability to relate. Part of conversation’s attraction is its capacity to allow us to relate to someone else. As the Jesuit intellectual, Walter Ong suggests, in conversation, “… persons commune with persons, reaching one another’s interiors… ” To understand others, we must talk with them.
Relating to Ourselves
It is not solely our ability to relate to someone else that conversation can address, but also our ability to relate to ourselves. As Susan Sontag said, “I talk… in order to find out what I think.”
We’ve vacuum packed our minds. If we are to pierce that shrink wrapped carapace, then we should reframe our conversations as ones where each of us wishes to hear the other; where we wish to discuss and explain, instead of justify and prove. The conversation then allows for understanding instead of persuasion. What we may find is that our own awareness of our views shifts and morphs. Amazingly, according to a study reported in the New York Times here, when people supporting particular political policies are “asked to explain how these policy ideas work: they become more moderate in their political views.” Quite simply, the very act of articulating a viewpoint enables us to discern weaknesses either in the subject or in our understanding of it. As individuals, we get to sharpen our views by investigating them with a critical eye, and a conversational partner.
Conversation also allows us a route to our authentic selves. By investigating our personal views, beliefs and opinions, we reveal and illuminate our true personality instead of some superficial persona that we project to others.
As suggested above, it is worth accepting that we have disagreements instead of trying to force compliance to one (our) point of view. Much more valuable is sincere engagement without the need for compliant agreement. In fact, it is important that we actively seek difference. Birds of a feather may flock together, but the implications of our social segregation are disturbing. As Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort points out, the homogeneity of American society is perpetuating our shrink wrapped perspectives and lack of compassion. We are constructing personal lifestyles where difference is removed and, consequently, we are unable to deal with people that are different. In that context, we should be grateful that we are engaging with others whose perspectives, experiences, opinions and feelings are not the same as our own.
Can you identify assumptions that are made about you by others that you think are wrong? Perhaps a relative still stereotypes you by experiences that were from your childhood, or a work colleague assumes you are the same at home as you are at work? After reflecting on whether others hold assumptions about you that you feel are inappropriate, to what degree are you sure that your perceptions of someone else are true? It is a feature of our times that we seek certainty, when we should instead be willing to lean into uncertainty.
Unfortunately, the rapport that can be achieved through conversation is not likely to arise within a short time span. Conversation is at its most potent when it is allowed space to drift, unforced. In This American Life’s Red State Blue State broadcast, Lisa Pollak spoke with Phil Neisser and Jacob Hess, two political opposites and authors of You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong), who demonstrated the possibilities for more productive conversations. One feature of this experiment, however, is their commitment to a yearlong conversational engagement.
Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah says that we can use conversation to sidle up to our differences and incrementally accumulate the competency to delve into more provocative conversations around dissonance. We must allow time for this accretion of trust and respect. It has taken eight years for me and my father-in-law to reach a stage where we robustly disagree on our political views, but have developed a respect and trust in each other’s character that has enabled a welcomed relationship.
In our contemporary society, we are swift to voice our views. In turn, we are uncomfortable with moments of silence or contemplation. Silence, however, is a way we can be a detective of our own thoughts, as well as our attitudes to listening. We should allow for conversational pauses. By giving silence a chance to shine, we give the conversation room for its own growth and self-determination, as well as an opportunity to quell our more hyperbolic tendencies in favor of more considered reaction.
For a country that applauds courage, we exhibit little of it when it comes to conversation. Sure, there are the faux displays of brave confession on various media shows, but these are nothing more than conversation as therapeutic entertainment. True courage in conversation requires a degree of vulnerability. As mentioned above, this may take time to allow us to sidle up to more difficult issues. Nonetheless, as Brené Brown points out in her research, as in this TedxHouston talk, if we are to find real harmony in our lives and in our relationships, we must be courageous, and therefore learn to accept vulnerability. In a society that has come to think that everything we want is effortless and cheap, it will be discomforting to realize that wonderful relationships come at a cost. Most of us, though, will accept that the price of discomfort is worth the joy in our friendships and the sense of meaning and purpose we share with family.
Good luck with your conversations.