What’s to be gained?

My nephew, a soldier who identifies as a devout Christian, was posting pro-war messages on Facebook. His words and photos revealed that he was eagerly anticipating seeing action and engaging in camaraderie with his buddies during their Excellent Adventure in Iraq.

At around the same time, during the 2008 Gaza invasion, I asked my Facebook friends to join me in supporting ANERA, a well-rated American charity that was seeking donations for urgently needed food and medical care for Gaza families. In response, my nephew updated his status urging support for the Israeli Defense Forces. In all seriousness, he seemed to be implying that armed, invading soldiers needed our support as much or more than wounded, hungry children in their freshly obliterated neighborhoods.

I asked my minister, “How can I respond? His messages sicken me, sadden me. How do I speak for peace?”

She asked, “What result will you be hoping for if you respond to him?” I had to admit that I would be hoping that he would give up his chosen career and devote his energy and skills to a more constructive and humane calling.

Oh, well.

But it’s a good question: What do we want to achieve by talking with our right-wing family and friends? What can we reasonably expect to achieve? The notion that words from a distant aunt could cause—or even influence—an eager young soldier to change careers is laughably unrealistic.

My friend Julie aimed much lower when her brother started their Thanksgiving dinner discussion with “Your husband has that cushy public-employee pension. I guess you don’t have to worry.”

Taken aback, Julie told her brother about the financial sacrifices, including lower pay, that her husband made when he left his private-sector job for a more ethically satisfying state job. Neither she nor her brother knew much about relative compensation levels in the public and private sectors, and yet both threw what little they knew across the table at each other.

I asked her what result she had hoped for. “To set him straight about public employees’ compensation.” Did it work? “No, we agreed to disagree and haven’t spoken since.”

It’s very easy to tell ourselves “You just can’t talk to some people; don’t even try.” But the way I see it is this: My nephew is eager to risk losing his life doing something he sincerely believes promotes democracy. You and I can risk losing an argument or a friendship. Avoiding political conversation is no longer a patriotic option. If we don’t talk politics with our fellow citizens, our nation’s only political discourse will be orchestrated by those with the money to purchase it. Democracy will be dead.

I’m no expert yet, but I practice every chance I get. I’ve learned that trying to correct facts—even in topics where we have deep expertise—is almost always fruitless, sometimes even damaging. Karen Armstrong has spent her life studying the world’s religions from their ancient roots to modern day. In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, she describes what happened when she, a world-renowned religious scholar, tried to correct misapprehensions about Islam following al-Qaeda’s 2011 attacks.

When politicians or pundits have insisted that Islam is an inherently violent, intolerant faith…, I have written articles based on my study of Islamic history to challenge this. But I have recently decided that this is counterproductive. All that happens is that my article is virulently attacked and my assailants rehearse the old ideas again with greater venom. As a result, the intellectual atmosphere becomes even more polluted and people remain entrenched in angry negativity.

And even if you succeed in correcting any facts, you won’t likely affect the broader assumptions or values that provide fertile soil for misinformation. The only significant outcome you are likely to leave is a lasting sense that talking politics with you is unpleasant and embarrassing.

Since the chances of eliciting a lasting epiphany in one conversation are remote, a more useful objective is lay groundwork for better conversations in the future. When Julie recounted her Thanksgiving dinner incident to me, she kept saying, “I have no idea why he did that!”

Now there’s a good question. Why did her brother suddenly start complaining to her about public workers’ pensions, in front of others, during what was normally a warm family gathering? Julie confirmed that sort of behavior wasn’t typical of her family’s gatherings.

I asked what would have happened if, instead of entering a debate about comparative compensation levels, she had directly asked him, “Why are you bringing that up?” or depending on her relationship with him, “Whoa, what’s eating you?” She didn’t know, but two months after the attack, she could easily see that her brother must have been genuinely worried, fearful, or hurt about something. Whether his concern was personal or political, Julie’s relationship with her brother would have been enhanced had she been able to open a sincere person-to-person conversation instead of wasting time, energy, and good will on a factoid-slinging showdown.

One recent morning, I was standing with a clipboard in front of a downtown coffee shop, collecting petition signatures to recall Wisconsin’s governor. As one large fellow rushed inside, he took the opportunity to inform the world, in a very loud voice, that I was an idiot and a union lackey.

I knew he’d come back out in a few minutes, so I had a chance to figure out how to respond. He appeared to be a middle-class office worker, not anyone who would benefit from any of Walker’s policies. I was sincerely curious about what motivated him, because I know how upset I’d have to be to yell insults at a stranger on the sidewalk.

When he came out, I met his eyes and used body language to signal that I was going to speak to him, but said nothing. He accepted my unspoken invitation to tell me more. He ranted about how union members were spoiled and greedy, doing nothing more than what their union bosses tell them. As he spoke, I realized he had some very specific—and very mistaken—assumptions about who I was and why I was there. He was addressing a cartoon character, not me.

Being listened to without being interrupted is a bit of a responsibility—you have to come up with things to say. This exchange wasn’t unfolding as he’d expected, and he started to deflate. As he vented, the volume of his speech came down to a conversational level and finally he paused.

“I’m not a union member, never have been, and never plan to be,” I explained. “I’m able to be here on a workday because my husband started a successful small business twenty-five years ago. When he sold his interest in it, we were both able to retire.”

Well, if you’re not union members, you’re still lackeys.”

I responded politely. “I am not doing this for the unions. I’m doing this for citizens like you and me, so that we can find out what bills are being introduced in our legislature and can get into the Capitol to see our legislators at work, like we used to be able to do. I’m doing this so that both you and I will be able to vote even when we get old or become disabled and lose our driver’s licenses. I’m doing this so both you and I will be able to find out who is financing the campaigns so that we can know who our elected officials are beholden to. Walker is trying to shut both you and me out of our government so he can hand it over to his wealthy out-of-state backers. I’m here for Wisconsin and for democracy, for you and me.”

This did not fit his preconceptions at all. Rattled, he ended the exchange with, “Well, I like the guy. Best to you,” and walked off.

No apostasy, no epiphany. I’d done little more than introduce myself. But I had undermined a caricature rather than reinforcing it. I spoke in a way that included him, rather than adopting his pretense that we belonged to different tribes. I might have sown some seeds of doubt that will help him listen more critically the next time a right-wing radio talk-show host lies to him about his fellow citizens. I might have made him more able to start his next political conversation without yelling.

And who would have thought his final words would be “Best to you”? I think I got the most I could out of that little opportunity, and I hope the next progressive he encounters will build on it.

As for my nephew? I drafted a letter to sort out my thoughts and never sent it. He and I had never been close anyway, and he stopped using Facebook to document his militaristic delight as he developed into the officer he now is.  So I’ll just wait for Jesus to do the talking and hope my nephew stays safe without hurting or killing anyone until then.

(Originally posted on my Open Salon blog on January 18, 2012.)

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About Karen McKim

Retired from a 30-year career in public sector quality assurance and management auditing, I now spend my time in civic activities promoting our ability to exercise our right to self-government. I have two focuses: verified accurate election results, and skills for talking politics with our fellow citizens. Based in Wisconsin.
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