“If you’ve been to jail for freedom, then you’re a friend of mine,” hundreds of voices sang in unison. Ben Manski, organizer of last month’s Democracy Convention, introduced speaker after speaker by noting how many times he or she had been arrested.
I share Pete Seeger’s criterion for friendship, and Manski was right in assuming I would pay respectful attention to any speaker who had undertaken serious civil disobedience. Still, I wondered whether the hotel staff maintaining the water pitchers worried that they were hydrating a gang of criminals.
Over the recent four-day convention, I was fired up along with the other thousand participants by the talk of resistance, fighting, struggle, and even revolution. At the same time, I was increasingly uneasy that a politically naïve passerby might overhear snippets of the florid speeches. Any number of sound bites would have damaged the democracy cause if broadcast out of context on the evening news.
That kind of talk motivates us, I know, but we’re also going to have to learn to talk persuasively to fellow citizens who aren’t yet in the fold. Most either don’t pay attention to the news or their beliefs have been shaped exclusively by the corporate infotainment industry. Even knowing this, we avoid talking politics or we let our political conversations degenerate into snark, sarcasm, shouting, and insults.
That’s got to change.
Saving American democracy will require millions of effective person-to-person conversations around Thanksgiving tables, over hedges, and on Facebook pages. Friends don’t let friends vote Republican.
But don’t look at me; I don’t know how yet. In small talk last May, a friend asked, “Can you believe they found pornography in bin Laden’s compound?” I replied in the same social-chat sort of way. “I don’t know what to believe; I guess we’ll never know.”
“No, really, they announced it,” he explained, assuming I had not heard the news. I clarified: “I believe the State Department said that. But only the Navy Seals will ever know what they actually found.”
My intelligent, well-educated friend was aghast. “You don’t think they would lie about something like that!”
My reflex was not helpful: I laughed in his face. That surely did nothing to improve his citizenship sophistication. He told me he “had to believe there were people with integrity in our armed forces, and they wouldn’t allow the government to lie about something like that.” I let the conversation end and am still sad to have abandoned him with that level of naïveté. If he’s unwilling to believe that the government would lie about something so trivial with so much free propaganda value, how will he ever be able to think logically about truly consequential issues?
But what could I have said to him? Where do I start?
Probably dozens of professions have explored techniques we could use. Marketing types must have libraries of articles on persuasion. Marriage counselors, I hope, know a thing or two about restoring productive conversation where hostility and disrespect have rooted. Mediators, negotiators, peace workers, missionaries, human resource managers. There’s surely a science out there, and I aim to find it.
(Originally posted on my Open Salon blog on September 9, 2011)