Your lunch date with the college roommate you haven’t seen in ten years has turned awkward. She has become rigid and inflexible with a harsh divisive intolerant worldview. Even worse, she is using half-baked truths and phony facts to reinforce her points. You are both too intense to ignore the topic now. What do you do?
It seems impossible to have a rational discussion when your views are so far apart. Although you enjoy a healthy debate, this seems more likely to become an uncomfortable conflict. You are too mature to sling insults at the other person’s beliefs or intellect. Your beliefs are too important; the stakes too high to ignore the other person’s point of view. And deep down you know the truth in
Hubert H. Humphrey’s statement: “Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent, and debate.”
Our noble experiment as a Democratic Republic was created to be of the people, by the people, for the people. For over two centuries we have discussed, debated, disputed, and questioned as we tried to make the right choices. We collectively agree that we want to finely hone our ideals to reflect our advancements as a society.
Our methods for obtaining information have been transformed. We don’t wait months for the pony express to bring our news and letters. Walter Cronkite We don’t listen to the same radio programs, or watch the same nightly newscasts. First, cable and satellite offered an enormous variety of sources. Then the internet multiplied that array to a diversity of online resources that easily boggle the mind.
News and political junkies might spend hours combing various sites to form their own conclusions. The average person is juggling daily work and family obligations. In the midst of trying to relax, they peruse the news to see what local and world events require their attention. They tend to pick one or two resources that they trust, and that reflect their own worldview, and allow them to be the basis of their information.
Another problem is that we focus so much attention on our differences that we often forget that most of us share the same basic values. Few Americans disagree about:
- Equal rights and opportunities for individuals.
- Respect for personal and private property.
- The right of a person to think differently from ourselves.
- Three branches of elected government that actually work for the people.
- A system of laws and taxation that apply to everyone.
- Treating people as we would like to be treated.
- Freedom, independence and individual liberty.
Our disagreement is with the practical route necessary to accomplish those values. What is the best way to generate jobs? How can we improve our educational system? Should government ensure medical care? Does the death penalty represent justice? We agree on the big picture but are bogged down in the fine print.
It is wonderfully inspiring when a healthy exchange of ideas motivates a person to vote, or to become more involved in the process. It is the essence of our system when such exchanges help to create new concepts that become better solutions to a problem.
However, they are not easy to create when emotions are involved. Or when we believe that the stakes are so high that there is little time for dissent. The only way to resolve the conflict is to change the framework. You need to step back from the intensity, from the deadline pressure, from the personal frustration and try a different tactic. Transform the discourse one conversation at a time.
You must also remember that debates, arguments, and discussions do not actually solve problems. Change requires action. I like to ask a person if they vote regularly before engaging in a discussion. If they don’t vote or participate in the process, their opinions are irrelevant. They will have no real effect on our world. Except to move air around when they talk.
What about that uncomfortable conversation?
...............Back to that awkward distressful meal.
In a voice that is simply inquisitive, ask about something that has personally touched them. One example: How has your job been affected by recent changes in the economy?
Let them talk. Ask simple, leading questions. Never let them feel you are waiting to trump their argument. You are not. You are trying to teach them to consider a different assessment of the issues at hand.
As Dale Carnegie once said: “The best argument is that which seems merely an explanation.”
It will take time, and countless conversations. The key is to take every broad generalized statement, every flaunting of stereotypes and every insult towards individuals or ideas and calmly break them down.
For example, if they state that:
Bill Clinton destroyed American values.
How do you define American values?
Do you think they have changed over the last one-hundred years?
How have they changed over the last twenty-five years?
How is it possible for one person to destroy them if they are so essential to our system?
If Bill Clinton had never been President, would American values be the same today? Why or why not?
Why do you think Presidents such as Roosevelt and Kennedy were able to be unfaithful to their wives while in office without destroying American values?
In what ways would are world be different if their behaviors had been exposed at the time?
Remain sincerely interested in their responses. Refuse to engage them in an argument. When they try to turn it back to you---say something non-committal like “I’m not sure, that is why I am interested in hearing your views.”
Once you have removed them from the ‘we are all right and they are all wrong’ mindset, you can help them to discover that they do have mixed feelings on the big issues. That everything we face in our world of massive choices and information is more complex than slogans or antagonism can address.
Change is a long process. It is a waste of time to think you will enlighten a hardened Limbaugh or O’Reilly fan in time for them to vote differently in the next election. Your current goal is to teach them to question their rigid line of reasoning. To raise their consciousness from a black and white world to one with shades of gray.
As Samuel Adams once said: "It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather a tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds.”