Given the political season here in the United States, I thought it was time for rebroadcast of this 5/8/15 post. Notice: This was a difficult post for me to write. As you will see it is very different from the usual sort of things you might find here at Bliss Habits. I hope this does not deter you from reading.
I am worried about us. Us meaning the American people. We seem to have lost the ability to talk with each other. I recently walked away from a Facebook conversation that I think illustrates the problem.
An old friend, someone I’ve known since before elementary school, was posting about her dissatisfaction with Obama’s Iran deal which did not include getting our hostages back. This topic has blown up in my Facebook feed with friends on both sides getting into the fray. Normally, I kind of steer away from these sorts of conversations, but I was feeling braver (a topic that deserves its own post) than usual.
I figured, I have an opinion, different than that of my friend, but what could be the harm in sharing it? So I did:
“It is too simplistic to think that trading hostages for any deal is ever a good idea. Imperfect situations require more nuance than the public can ever see.”
My Friend, “Again- tell it to the families.”
A fair point! I’m sure this is terrible for the families and hostages themselves. I then say,
Me, “I believe hard work is being done every day on behalf of the hostages. We should never give up.”
I’m feeling pretty good about what I’ve posted. I don’t personally believe that making concessions with terrorists is a good idea AND I feel confident that there are people who are working EVERY day to do what they can to get the hostages released. I feel like I expressed my opinion clearly.
Then my friend replies with:
“Goodness…..well at least you know all the standard talking points.”
What?!! I’m confused. Suddenly I’m being interacted with like I am some sort of Obama or Occupy agent. This is a woman I have known since we were three and four years old. I was clear we disagree but I truly thought my personal opinion would be welcome anyway.
I try, perhaps not very well, to explain why/how I’ve come to believe that negotiating with terrorists is a bad idea and mention that I think some of my opinion is informed by years of cop shows in which I was repeatedly taught that we never make a deal with kidnappers.
That went over like a lead balloon.
My friend, “And TV shows…really?”
My intention in sharing my TV reference was to show that the opinion I was sharing was/is uniquely mine. I was hoping this might show that I was not some agent provocateur for the other side and it was just me, an old neighbor, telling you what I think.
And to answer, TV shows… really? Absolutely really! My opinions are the sum of all the information I have consumed. Books, research documents, documentaries, comments from people I respect or don’t, discussions with friends etc. Some stuff I throw out and some stuff stays in. The theme that negotiating with kidnappers is bad happened to stay in.
Wow, I was truly surprised. We were no longer old neighbors having a discussion, it was me, crazy liberal, and she, defender of conservative values.
Suddenly I was a “good lib” doing a bad job of sharing my personal opinion because I hadn’t come to the table with “scholarly articles” to support my thoughts.
For goodness sake, we shouldn’t need to come to every conversation with footnotes. If having a conversation requires that we have to do our due diligence and come prepared to defend every argument with research treatises prepared by “reputable” sources I think we have a bigger problem than the poor handling of a hostage situation.
Further, the moment we start tossing each other into camps of liberal and conservative, we let ourselves off the hook for actually finding out what the other person thinks. Once labeled we already know the other persons opinion.
This isn’t just happening between the easily distinguished and opposing right and left (politically speaking.) I’ve seen it happen in my own Facebook feed between people I know to have the same fundamental opinions. I’ve seen race discussions blow up between two women of color because they BOTH assumed the other was white (because all MY friends must be white?) I’ve witnessed two extremely knowledgeable and passionate women ASSUME something about the other that couldn’t be further from the truth as I know them both. Once down that bad assumption path labels are formed and the zingers begin to fly.
Once labeled we have either ally or opponent.
Think about that.
How do you communicate with an ally? An opponent? Completely different, right!?
Think about how you feel when that person you know shares something you disagree with. Do you immediately think, “Oh yeah, they are (insert label here) so of course they think that.”
Of course they already know that we are (insert that other label here) so anything we might say will be filtered by that.
Labels change conversations. Black/white, right/wrong characterizations are truly difficult to navigate. Labels stop communication.
The moment I approached the conversation believing my friend is “conservative”, and she believing that I am “liberal”, nearly 50 years of friendship had no bearing on our conversation. We became opponents.
I’m saddened by our conversation and the thousands, maybe millions, more like it that are happening all around our country. We seem to have lost our ability to talk with each other.
The internet provides us easy access to bullet points, zingers and facts which make it easy to spit information rather than communicate. This has got to stop.
Let us drop the labels and begin listening to each other. Let us be less interested in “winning” and be more interested in creating a conversational space in which we can all be heard.
Rollo May said,
“Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.”
My friends and I were certainly not doing this. So my questions are:
How do we reliably operate within Rollo May’s definition of communication?
Is it even possible to have conversations without our labels?
If we could what would that look like?
What can you or I do today to make that difference in our next interaction?
I would welcome your input in the comments.