By Kim Simmons, LWVME member & USM Faculty
My most vivid memory of the family-holiday-political-discussion-gone-bad goes something like this: A newly minted PhD, I tried to explain my understanding of rising income inequality to my extended family by marriage, utilizing a fair amount of “evidence.” They offered their own account of reality – one I did not believe was supported by empirical data – that reflected their lived experience. As the discussion went on I became increasingly frustrated and left the table to print out additional information. I’m chagrined to remember a bit of unpleasantness when my hand outs were not taken as game-changers. I vowed never to engage in such conversation again. But that’s not realistic and if I want my family to know me, I have to share my thoughts. If I want to know them, I have to lecture less and listen more.
Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort , documents increasing political segregation in the USA. We tend to live and work with people who share our cultural and political values and seek out news and information that confirms our already-held beliefs. We have less practice with honest and interesting political conflict and more experience of vitriol. Often we seem to lack shared values, shared sources of data or shared belief in any social facts. If conversation gets serious, opposing opinions can quickly go from different to “WRONG” to “MONSTER.” But these are our loved ones and these relationships matter. How do we bridge our differences?
As you gear up for the holidays and winter break, we offer some suggestions on how to approach political conversations so that you and your entire family can enjoy the holidays no matter what topic comes us.
1) Listen for Understanding. As obvious as it sounds, we often begin political conversations from a place of urgency and a desire to share our own point of view. While advocacy for an issue is essential in the larger landscape, conversations across difference should begin with a commitment to true listening. (The Center for Creative Leadership offers 6 pointers for active listening)
2) Seek Common Ground. Despite big differences in ideology, assumptions and even core values, we almost always can find some space of political common ground to share. Ask questions that help peel back the first layers of opinion and open up the deeper stories and perspectives shaping those points of view. What underlying values do you share? What elements of problem solving can you agree on? If nothing else, usually we can agree on the importance of freedom and integrity. (Check out this Conversations blog post for conversation-starters).
3) Ban Ad Hominem attacks. When listening, focus on the person speaking. When advocating, focus on the issue – not on the person you’re talking. Do not resort to name calling, shaming, or stereotyping. Try not to take another person’s different political idea personally and shift away from the conversation if it begins to become hurtful. A suggestion: try to avoid saying, “you’re wrong.” Look for ways to explain your point of view without criticizing. (Cruxcatalyst has some lovely suggestions for coping with an ad hominem attack made about you).
4) Acknowledge Incivility in Political Discourse. Most people are concerned about incivility in our culture. Begin your political conversation at the Meta level, talking directly about how and why it is hard to talk across our differences. Neutralize the elephant (or donkey) in the room by addressing the hurt that comes when discussions become uncivil. (See the data in the annual report on perceptions of incivility by Weber Shandwick/Powell Tate).
5) Relationship over Right. The League of Women Voters supports bipartisan civic participation and “good government.” The League is committed to improving the process of democracy and implementing our most cherished values about integrity in government. There are times when partisan or issue-oriented conversation derails the larger goal of inclusive participation. Sometimes, the best way to practice our politics is to hold our tongue and build deeper connections across our difference. A family slideshow or picture album can do more to counter the perception of “us and them” than any political conversation could! (Read and even give Parker Palmer’s beautiful book “Healing the Heart of Democracy which encourages us to all tolerate our discomfort in order to fulfill our responsibilities of citizenship).
Whatever your strategy and however you celebrate, we wish you and your family a very merry end to 2015. For more ideas, and spaces to practice, check out the Portland Public Library’s Choose Civility Project.