Synchronicity strikes again. In recent weeks, I’ve felt a growing determination to discover how we can talk politics to friends and family who do not share our views. Separately, I’d signed up for a church discussion group about Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.
This morning, I came upon Chapter 8, How should we speak to one another? Armstrong believes one major problem is that we’ve learned to frame debate as a competition in which the intent is to defeat a conversational opponent. We try to “undermine (our) opponents’ positions and have no qualms about discrediting them and their cause in order to marginalize their policies.”
That sort of conduct “will simply inspire further antagonism and make matters worse,” because both sides in such a debate “identify with our ideas so strongly that we feel personally assaulted if these are criticized or corrected.”
I can see the danger. If we all use the same hurtful argumentative style, we will just keep forcing our fellow citizens to commit ever more strongly to one of two sides, and our nation will continue to get more polarized.
Instead, Armstrong wants us to “develop a 21st-century form of Socrates’ compassionate discourse.” Such a style of discourse involves, among other things, desiring more to seek the truth than to ‘win’ an argument. It involves being alert to others’ underlying messages, which in the case of right-wingers often involve pain or fear. It requires relentless effort to notice and resist our impulses to boost our egos, demonstrate our cleverness, and score points.
Armstrong recounts an ancient story about a rural tribe frustrated with the many teachers who came along, each one promoting his own teachings and pouring scorn on the others. A final wise teacher declined to give them any teachings, but instead asked whether they had noticed what happens to people who are consumed by greed. Had they observed what hatred does to those who carry hate? The tribespeople could readily describe these things. The wise teacher pointed out that they did not need any teacher at all. They had wisdom within themselves.
I recently managed to draw a “free-market conservative” Facebook friend into a respectful exchange about the wisdom of abolishing all government regulations. My questions, which he correctly perceived as sincere, were in the style of the wise teacher: What do you foresee when deregulation frees up controls on the finance industry? I hear your concerns about excessive government power; can you now envision how you think unlimited corporate power will affect you and me?
Here’s a shocker: I’m not as effective as the wise teacher in the parable. My questions elicited no direct answers from him, thoughtful or otherwise. He simply reiterated right-wing talking points, in the manner of a right-wing phrase generator. Neither of us made any progress in better understanding the other.
Then, his wife saw this blog and threatened to sue me because I did not get his permission before I wrote the preceding paragraph.*
Okay, so that one goes down under the ‘failed attempt’ column.
I think all we can do is practice, make mistakes, and keep trying to connect with one another. I’m going to keep reading and experimenting. More later.
* Don’t worry; if she does find a lawyer crazy enough to take that case, the court will allow me to recover my attorney fees, I’m sure.
(Originally published on my Open Salon blog on September 11, 2011)