Friday, October 14, 2016

Thoughts on Political Dialogue and Political Evolution

I'm going to tell a story here that's not unique.  You probably have had this exact same experience yourself.  In fact, I'm sure everyone my age has at least 10 stories like this.

...And yet, in spite of the ubiquity of this experience, we often don't seem to learn from it.  So I'm going to go ahead and write down some self-reflections.

Like I said, the story is a common one.  I recently re-connected with a childhood friend via the magic of Facebook.  And I was surprised to see his political opinions had completely changed.

When we were in the church youth group together, he was well-known for being the most vocal Republican in the group.  He was as conservative as they came--a huge fan of Rush Limbaugh, and big proponent of evangelical Christianity.  He didn't like government welfare programs, didn't like feminism, and didn't like non-English speaking immigrants.  And he was known for being vocal and opinionated.

I had started off as a Republican as well.  (In that environment, we all did).  But somewhere around 17 or 18, I began to pivot Leftward.  He and I naturally squared off against each other as debating partners, and pretty soon every time we got together we were trading jabs.
It was mostly in a good-natured way (we were both huge nerds who enjoyed a good political debate), but I also began to get more and more self-righteous in my arguments.
At first these were just spoken arguments, but then after we both went away to college, we carried on the debates over e-mail.  Until the debate ran its course, and the correspondence gradually petered out.

The last time I saw him was I think in 2003.  We were in our mid-20s then, and he was still as conservative as ever.

Imagine my surprise, then, to find he had gone full liberal.  His Facebook wall full of links to liberal articles, and he was supporting liberal causes.  (He had been a big Bernie Sanders supporter during the primary, but is now fully backing Hillary).

We started chatting on Facebook, and he told me that life and experiences had eventually altered his opinions.  " wasn't until I saw more of the world that I realized that not everyone had the same advantages and opportunities as I did..." he told me.

My initial urge was to react by saying something like:
"Ha! I told you I was right!  I finally won!  All those long debates we had, and now you finally admit I was right about everything!"

I didn't actually type that of course.  "It would be unnecessary to say so explicitly," I thought to myself.  "He knows it, and I know it."

But then as I continued to think about it, I realized that I couldn't take credit for anything, because nowhere in our political debates had I given him any space to evolve.
Everything I used to say in those e-mails was either trying to emphasize how smart I was, or emphasize how dumb he was.
None of my insults had been at all helpful in moving him towards my point of view.  And so consequently I couldn't take any credit for his political evolution.  He had come around to my point of view  in spite of my rhetoric, and not because of my rhetoric.

I had treated him not as a complex human being whose opinions could evolve over time, but as a caricature which I could use to contrast my own beliefs, and show how righteous I was.

And the thing was, I of all people should have realized that humans are complex and constantly evolving because I had undergone a political evolution myself.  But I didn't grant this same ability to evolve to other people. At 16 I identified strongly with the Religious Right, but at 19 I treated everyone in the Religious Right like they were idiots.

I guess the point is this:
People can and do evolve politically.  But they don't change their opinions because they are insulted.

At this point I'm probably boring you, because you're thinking "Well, obviously.  This is all just common sense."
And it is common sense, but it's something we forget all the time.  Go to Facebook right now, and read the comment thread of any political debate that's happening on any of your friends' Facebook pages.  How much of that dialogue is constructive?  How much of it is going to convince people to join our cause, and how much of it is just going to drive them further away?

In a democracy, the ability to persuade is power.  And we on the Left have been doing a terrible job of trying to convert the other side.  We just alienate and mock the other side.

And just to be perfectly clear,  I say this as someone who's confessing my own sins.  If you read the archives of this blog, you can see me engaging in emotional rhetoric more often than reasoned rhetoric.  And I've gotten in several pointless Facebook arguments this year alone.  But I'm going to try to do better.  And we all need to do better.  Because we on the Left are losing.

I mean it, the country's in a bad place, and we on the Left are really getting creamed.  Sure, Trump is going to lose in November, but that's cold comfort.  Of course he's going to lose--the thing that should shock us is that he got so popular in the first place, and the fact that he is still so popular with a large percentage of the American electorate.
And Hillary Clinton is basically a neo-conservative  running as a Democrat, so her inevitable victory in November is nothing to get too excited about.

We on the Left need to adapt a missionary approach like the modern Church does.
Most modern missionaries no longer go out into the jungles and tell the natives how stupid they are.  Instead, the Catholic Church, for example, sends out missionaries to work side by side with the local people and gain their respect first.  They listen to the local people and find out what their concerns are.

When I think of my own political conversion, I remember a big part of it was that certain people I admired and respected had certain beliefs, and so I began to think that maybe there was something to those beliefs after all.
If those same people had insulted me instead, I probably never would have bothered to look deeper into their belief systems.

It seems hard, I know, because it seems like so much of the American Right is motivated by hate.  But that's also where they're the most vulnerable.  Because love is stronger than hate.

And I know that sounds like a hippy cliche, but it also happens to be true.

In my youth, when I identified with the Religious Right, I hated homosexuals, single black mothers on welfare, and illegal immigrants.  But all that hatred took a lot of emotional energy.  When I decided that I didn't want to hate those people anymore, and that I wanted to help them if I could, then it felt like a big burden had been lifted off from me.

Human beings naturally want to help each other.  We don't want to hate.   People just need to be shown that there's a better way, and they will follow.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - Right-wing Protesters


Darrell Reimer said...

Yeah, well said. In an election like this, making comments of merit is so difficult it's almost impossible. I've generally kept silent and hoped for the best for my American family and friends. Them just having to live through this is suffering enough.

Joel Swagman said...

It is hard to make comments of merit, and perhaps a blog isn't the best way to personally engage people on an individual level. Certainly in my personal conversations or personal correspondence with people, though, I want to make an effort to be more understanding in the future.