Talk About It

I’m very concerned about the growth of what I would call the radical right in American politics. (I’m pretty sure these folks don’t consider themselves the radical right. They most likely think they’re the mainstream.)

One of my Facebook friends recently joined a group called “Sarah Palin is a Fucking Retard.” As emotionally satisfying as that might be, I don’t think name-calling is helpful. On the contrary — all we accomplish by name-calling is to insure that the extreme polarization of views will continue. Nor do I think much is to be gained by sitting around with our friends, nodding heavily, and saying, “Ain’t it awful?”

If there is any hope at all, it lies in taking a different sort of action.

I’d like to suggest that starting an open-ended dialog on any and all of the hot-button issues of the day would be a Really Good Thing. I also think it’s pretty clear that the folks who think Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh are insightful commentators are not going to initiate the dialog. For one thing, most of them are ill-equipped for it. For another, they’ve been told over and over that they’re 100% right, which if it were true would render dialog unnecessary.

If there is to be a dialog, it’s up to us to initiate it. Here are my suggestions:

First, be ready and willing to talk about political, social, and moral issues at any time. Make a particular point of seeking out those with whom you’re pretty sure you’ll disagree. Nothing is to be gained, and much is to be lost, by remaining politely silent.

Second, remain friendly and calm at all times. Resist the temptation to raise your voice. Do not wave your arms. Above all, no name-calling! You are permitted to say, “I’m sorry — I find what you’re saying rather upsetting.”

Third, look on all of your conversations on these issues as a way of educating yourself. You may even learn something that will modify your views in some way. At the very least, you’ll learn more about what other people’s views are. When they mention facts (or what they have been told are facts), don’t rush to contradict them, and especially if you’re not rock-solid about your own sources of information. Instead, say, “That’s interesting. Where did you learn that?”

Fourth, do your homework. If you’re going to talk about immigration, education, or health care, take the time to learn what’s actually going on in the world around you. Avoid sweeping generalizations. Rely more on basic research into the facts than on what you read in left-leaning opinion pieces, no matter how cogent or insightful you may think those opinion pieces are. Avoid saying things like, “Everybody knows that’s complete nonsense.” Instead, say something like, “Some of the people I know have other ideas about that. Maybe it would be useful for us all to pool our ideas and learn more about the subject.”

Fifth, begin (and continue) with the assumption that the people you’re talking to are basically kind and decent and want the same things you do. We all want to live in safe, pleasant communities. We all want our children to get a good education. We all value personal freedom. Where we differ is in our view of how these goals are to be achieved. Look for the similarities, not the differences.

If a whole bunch of people engage in this kind of dialog with their friends and neighbors, I predict that several interesting things will happen. Some of the people you talk to will begin to modify their views. You will be modeling for them the always worthwhile process of careful thinking, which is not something they will have learned from Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh. Even if they don’t change their views, they may be less inclined to demonize those who disagree, because they will have seen that you’re a friendly person who shares common concerns, not a rabid monster.

And if they just can’t manage to engage in dialog — if they insist on mouthing hateful slogans and flinging insults, if they’re entirely unable to listen — then they’ll have a good chance to see their own out-of-control behavior for what it is, because you won’t be doing anything to provoke it. They may learn something about themselves.

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2 Responses to Talk About It

  1. Jerry says:

    I have yet to see one of my conservative associates be swayed by logic and gentle intentions. They seem to love dwelling in righteous indignation and continuously escalating drama. Their idea of the right approach to politics is that of the cowboy-evangelist. I think your calm, non-confrontational approach is the better way but one that would ultimately be seen as a sign of weakness rather than wisdom. Without the impasse they don’t have control of the game. And that will never do.

    • Ben C. says:

      About a year ago, I had the opportunity to sit down at a family retreat and discuss global warming with the group. Collectively, we were a fairly broad sampling of political ideologies, and both extremes were represented (and quite talkative.)

      The upshot is that once we agreed to table disputes over the uncertainty and fallibility of climate predictions (as opposed to climate data), one of the more conservative folks granted the inevitability of climate change for the sake of argument, then asked one of the progressives what she thought would be an appropriate percentage of the GDP to allocate to the purpose of dealing with it.

      Her answer? “All of it.” Which is about as near as you can come to a hysterical, overly dramatic reaction to a question about basic economics. But from her perspective it wasn’t about economics at all. It was about the environment, the children, and society’s attendant responsibilities.

      I don’t think it’s really that most people are intensely unreasonable about these questions. Rather, they don’t think about them in the same way that folks on the mythical other side do. At the end of the day, any action taken on any problem is going to require compromise, unless you subscribe to the fiction that enough education or enough religion or whatever will unite everyone in universal harmony. That will mean talking about it in terms of money, even if it’s not really about money, or accepting it as a shared responsibility, even if that responsibility doesn’t seem particularly fair.

      Back when the death panel fracas was in full swing, I talked with the same conservative about his take on Obama. It was basically the Rush Limbaugh line: Obama’s a socialist and wants to put the elderly in a gas chamber. More refined in essence but you get the idea. I pointed out that the notion of cost controls (which is what the supposed death panels amounted to) were hardly a radical left invention, but were in fact exactly the approach usually favored by fiscal moderates and conservatives.

      I found the idea of a national health plan without such controls rather terrifying from an economic standpoint, and he agreed with that viewpoint. Then I suggested that, setting aside my bias against the idea of national health insurance – treating that goal as a foregone conclusion, which it then appeared to be – Obama was actually advocating and advancing my interests rather effectively, if indeed the panels were his idea.

      We’ve had similar conversations about Obama’s executive policy in other areas, particularly his counter-terrorism efforts, and eventually we agreed that Obama is doing a fairly credible imitation of a moderate, despite the fact that he is a closet socialist and corruptor of small children. So the discussions can make a difference. Maybe not much – it’s hard to compete with daily doses of Fox or MSNBC – but enough to not be a total waste of time.

      On the subject of Palin: I agree that abusing her is probably a tactical mistake, but oh man do I wish she would shut up and stop crowding out more intelligent voices. I admire McCain for a lot of reasons, but the man deserves another five years in North Vietnam for his part in her political career.

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