People often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate. —Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s widely acknowledged that we live in a deeply polarized country. The gap between Republicans and Democrats is rapidly widening. The media is highly fragmented, so people across the political spectrum can surround themselves with news and analysis that supports their preconceived opinions. This tends to fuel distrust of people who are different. Such distrust is evident in the acrimonious debate surrounding the last election and the current conversation about gun control. This split is bad news for our government: our elected officials have trouble cooperating enough to carry on the routine business of governing, let alone tackling difficult issues constructively. It’s bad news for our communities: trust erodes and cynicism flourishes. It’s bad news for us as individuals: our capacity for critical thinking weakens. And finally, it may be especially bad for those of us who are trying to live an alternative to the consumer culture. We need to begin by modeling an alternative way of talking about our differences.
When polarization sets in, deviation from the party line, whether liberal or conservative, is seen as threatening. Living off-grid sets us in opposition to very basic cultural assumptions shared by many liberals and conservatives. This can look like deviant—and therefore frightening—behavior to folks on both sides who are a little further into the mainstream. I think this may be a particular challenge for the prepper community in the aftermath of the tragedy in Newtown. I haven’t had to contend with this particular fear; I think of myself as a homesteader, not a prepper, and I’m a pacifist, not a Second Amendment enthusiast. But I also live in a way our society considers abnormal. As a homeschooler who never went to college, a small farmer, an adult living with a parent, a full-time volunteer, a Medicaid recipient, a pacifist, and a Christian, I’ve had difficult conversations with people who pitied me and believed I was misguided or who were angry with me based on hostile assumptions about one of the groups of which I’m a member. As someone with serious questions about the justice and sustainability of the consumer culture, I’ve sometimes wanted to ask other people to examine how they live and why, and I’ve struggled to do that without making false assumptions about them or making them defensive.
These are hard conversations, but I think they’re necessary, perhaps especially for those of us who are living outside the mainstream. I think that some of our culture’s assumptions are false and unwholesome and that there’s power and freedom in stepping away from them. I’m also aware that stepping away and immersing myself in a small group of like-minded people makes me more vulnerable to my own false and unwholesome assumptions. Frank, thoughtful, and respectful discussions with people who disagree give me some of the balance and perspective that I need. I also think that as national and global political and economic systems become increasingly dysfunctional, it’s important to build local networks of trust and support, and that necessitates working and talking with people who disagree with me.
My natural inclination is to plunge headlong into arguments, wave my arms, and make my points loudly, rapidly, and repeatedly. I think I do this fairly fluently, and I sometimes enjoy it. But I don’t find it helpful in actually reaching mutual understanding with people who disagree with me. They’re likely to wave their arms and make their points with increasing enthusiasm, listening to my arguments just long enough to poke holes in them. We both end up frustrated.
I am learning to try to understand other people and make myself understandable to them, rather than trying to out-argue them. When I do this, I often find that our relationship grows stronger, that I leave the conversation with some useful perspectives to consider, and that the other people are more open to considering what I have to say. They probably won’t change their minds, but they may rethink an assumption or two, including the assumption that “those people” on the other side must be stupid, corrupt, or deranged.
In some situations, it’s very difficult to start a constructive dialogue about controversial issues. I think it’s best not to attempt this when you or the other person are sick, very tired, very stressed, or upset with each other about some more personal issue that’s likely to inject venom into any exchange of ideas. Sometimes it’s also harder to disagree constructively in front of a group of other people; I know in those situations I am tempted to “play the crowd” and focus on the impression I’m making rather than the conversation I’m having. Perhaps for this reason, I find constructive disagreement much harder online than in person.
It’s easier to start a constructive dialogue with someone if you’ve already formed a friendly and respectful relationship. I know people who organize political demonstrations and try to get their points across to large numbers of people. I don’t know how to do this to good effect. I am learning how to work along with neighbors and guests, growing food to share or tutoring kids, planning community service projects…and how to respond gently and honestly to things that they ask or say.
Sometimes listening quietly is more effective than speaking loudly. During the Iraq war a pacifist organization asked our community to organize a neighborhood antiwar demonstration. We declined, feeling that this would only alienate our neighbors, who tended to be much more Republican and hawkish than we are. Near the same time, a neighbor came to pick green beans to can. She talked with my mother about her son in the Marines who was being deployed to Iraq and about how the U.S. was rescuing the Iraqis from tyranny, how ungrateful the Iraqis were, how violent their religion was. My mother listened quietly. Finally our neighbor stopped and said, “You’re not saying anything.” After continuing her denunciation of Muslims she stopped again and said, “You don’t agree with me?” My mother said that she didn’t want to argue, that she knew how worried our neighbor was about her son, and that my mother would pray for him. Only when our neighbor asked, “How can you not agree?” did my mother say how she understood the situation. We were hearing news from relief workers and activists working with civilian families in Iraq who suffered first under U.S. sanctions and then under military occupation. Our neighbor had heard very different stories. It appeared that this was the first time she had heard someone she knew personally and saw as like herself (a farmer, homeschooler, Christian, hard worker) who disagreed with her about the war. I doubt it changed her mind, but it may have made her think.
Asking questions can be at least as helpful as making assertions. I learned this first in trying to converse with people who felt strongly that my decision to take up farming instead of going to college was misguided. Telling them that I thought college perpetuated class privilege, or that the word “curriculum” came from the Latin word for racetrack and I preferred to build up my mental muscles by traveling where I actually wanted to go sometimes made them more hostile. I learned, instead, to ask, “How was college for you? Why did you decide to go? What did you go in expecting? What did you find? What was the best part? What was the worst?” Sometimes the answers suggested ways in which I could respond with more hope of finding common ground. (“I hear you about how much more open and flexible college was than high school. I’m glad you had that rich experience of freedom to think for yourself. I haven’t had to go through high school, and I mean to go on thinking for myself…” or “That’s great that you felt so clear about being called to be a doctor, and that you were able to take the courses you needed to prepare. I feel called to be a farmer, and the best preparation I know for that is apprenticeship, not college…” or “I’m sorry. That’s terribly unfair that people assumed you ‘weren’t college material’ and pressured you not to go. I wish that people could decide whether they were called to college and the professions or to other ways of working and learning without being pressured…”) Often the answers told me some interesting and important things about the other person that I hadn’t known and so deepened our friendship. Usually the other person got involved in storytelling and stopped haranguing me, which was a relief.
Questions about personal experience seem to be particularly disarming, but it can be helpful to ask about other things too. Chances are that the folks who disagree with you are basing their opinions on facts very different than the ones you have. Sometimes it helps to ask where they get their news and information—especially if you can refrain from informing them that their sources are obviously corrupt, foolish, or insane. They probably trust their sources as much as you trust yours, and they may be as skeptical of yours as you are of theirs. It may be edifying to ask how they decided where to get their information, and to tell them what you hear and why you trust that. It also helps to clarify terms. My friends on both sides of the gun control debate talk a lot about safety, justice, and freedom. Sometimes it’s helpful to ask: What do you want to be kept safe from? How do you decide what is just? What do you want to be free from, or free to do?
Admitting to your own struggles and weaknesses in the presence of people who disagree with you may be counter-intuitive, but it can help establish constructive dialogue. I still struggle with this when talking with people to whom my way of life doesn’t make sense. I want to show how right my ideas are, and I tend to feel that this is best accomplished by speaking with confident enthusiasm about all the things that I do well and the things that I enjoy. But this doesn’t always help. I know when other people speak only of their strengths and successes I sometimes feel defensive considering my own periodic failures, and I often end up wondering what they are leaving out. Owning weaknesses invites the other person to think of their own struggles with sympathy and understanding rather than defensiveness.
I also find that people who can’t agree on the language in which they formulate their ideals can understand and help one another in the long and difficult process of trying to live up to those ideals. I noticed this when I attended a gathering of young adult Quakers from around the world. We came with a wide range of cultural backgrounds and theological understandings. Sometimes we got into intense arguments about the interpretation or the value of Scripture and about controversial ethical and social issues. Sometimes we just looked at each other with baffled frustration and couldn’t think what to say. Before the end, we began to understand what we shared. Instead of arguing about our points of conviction, we talked about our attempts to be faithful to those convictions. We had to be willing to translate each other’s language a bit; some people spoke of dying and being raised with Christ and others of letting go of ego and opening up to truth, but the basic process they were describing was very nearly the same. We shared many common obstacles to faithfulness—laziness, fear of what new truths we might have to face if we started living up to the ones we already knew, preoccupation with money or security or approval, unwillingness to admit our lack of faith—and many of the same cures for these ailments: letting go our distractions and entering into silence, confessing our brokenness, setting aside our self-preoccupation and doing necessary work with and for other people.
So next time you find yourself preparing for a heated argument as you defend your beliefs, consider turning the discussion from a battle to a conversation. In the long run, a dialogue will take you much further than merely being on the defensive.
©2013 Off the Grid News