Are you scared? Did I spook you? Did you consider closing the window and running for the most rural, brambly-bunker of Internet deadzone you could find? I don’t blame you. Maybe some of you screamed “Yesssss!” in your best Brain impersonation and flexed your fingers, anticipating the first opening to fling in a dissenting opinion. Unfortunately, this isn’t a carnival game (though it is arguably just as rigged). There is no winning, no matter how sharp your wit or how many likes your barb hooks. Unless you are at the politician on stage and your words win you the election, you’re simply talking.
In this heated election season, as in many before it, we often hear “I don’t want to talk politics.” However, this reaction is neither spontaneous nor in response to the topic at hand. Rather, it comes when we disagree, and its subtext ranges from “I don’t want to argue” and “I don’t want to say/hear this again” to “I don’t want to hear you be wrong and ignore my rightness.” The latter is the most common and least acknowledged by far.
I think the source of this sentiment, which I’m definitely guilty of, stems from entering discourse with the intent of converting the other party. We aren’t trying to hear them or their argument, we’re only letting them open their mouths to get them to swallow our answers to the problems. And we want them to do it now.
I was made aware of this when my friend Brandon told me he’d reduced heaps of conversational stress with his socially, religiously, and/or politically conservative friends by ceasing to enter into a discussion attached to the belief that he’s right, and by virtue of that rightness, needs to win. It struck me immediately that I am exceptionally competitive conversationally, which is a serious source of my dissatisfaction in social interactions. My circles are eclectic and, while comprised of overlapping shades of intellectuals, opinions, beliefs and even values stray far afield.
My circles are eclectic and, while comprised of overlapping shades of intellectuals, opinions, beliefs and even values stray far afield. This leaves the grounds of conversation fertile for disagreement. And when there’s a disagreement, it seeps into my boots like festering swamp water, irritating and chilling me, distracting me from the steps of the exchange and forcing my focus onto the discomfort of the disagreement’s presence. Discomfort stagnates if left unchecked, saturating awareness, rotting away patience, and sapping me of any desire to venture deeper into the jungles of debate.
So I stop. I sit down with the disagreement, bemoaning its existence, accusing the other of causing it, of leading us into the swamp in the first place, straying from the path of rightness I knew so well. I stop the adventure and lose the chance to learn, and ironically, ignore the fact that the other person is often in the exact some position.
This is a tragedy, not only because it can add antagonism to close relationships, but because it halts intellectual advancement. If I only focus on conversion and the absolutism of my, more truthfully, casual authority on matters, then I have enshrined my opinion as a religiously omniscient icon, and in worshipping it, cast only my shadow to the world at large. I stop seeing the rest of the picture, sacrificing perspective for a perpetual view of what I believe to be true. I may as well talk to a mirror.
I’m exaggerating just a smidgen.
And frankly, I argue with myself too, so the mirror remark reflects layers. But ultimately, the end is the same. Even when dealing with interior monologue, half of me has the inflexibility of a sugar-ramped toddler at nap time (“No” means “I’LL SCREAM SO LOUD YOU’LL DIE”). It’s the antithesis of helpful.
Opinion and belief are malleable, and should be treated as such. Expressing them should not always equate to defending and propagating them. There is a time and a place for persuasion, there are forums and foes who welcome the effort, but rarely are either found in casual conversation. Consider this if election season mires your days in strife.
Now, perhaps more than in any race in recent memory, remaining open and level can strike strife from democrat and republican couples, families, and friends. It can stop the retreat of independents, progressives, and the often ignored green partiers, from bipartisan engagements and aisle-cleaved arguments. With one internal act, one shift in how you frame and react to a situation, you can transform conflict into an opportunity to learn.
So engage, but don’t combat. Respond, but don’t rebuke. Instead of saying, “No, that’s wrong; this is right,” ask, “Did you mean X? If so, what are your thoughts on Y?” Question compassionately and earnestly, not to entrap them, but to clarify meaning. Don’t word your questions with aggressive assumption. Rephrase their statements to ensure you got their meaning. Question their logic, but don’t deride it. Evolve the conversation into an exchange. And ask them to do the same. It’s much easier to be reasonable when the person asking is also making the effort.
If you stop trying to win, stop believing in the invincibility of your rightness, you’re afforded the chance to listen, and, by application of your attention to something other than your inner monologue, the chance understand another person. That’s a chance at connection. You may only walk away with no more than your beliefs strengthened. You may realize that you were totally wrong and too beholden to soundbite factoids (and by not arguing, be spared the resentment and humiliation that typically come with that epiphany). Or you may just stroll off with more to think about. But if you approach a discussion with an open mind, detached from your often excessive conviction, you’ll rarely walk away drained and angry.
Politics don’t need to be negative. They don’t need to ruin days, friendships, families, or that dinner you finally managed to schedule and were totally looking forward to before that snide comment about the latest poll numbers. We can be better than that. If we remove competition and reclaim curiosity and civility, we won’t just survive the circus that is the US 2016–No seriously, you’re voting for who? You know they can’t win rig–Ahem. We won’t just survive the US 2016 presidential race to the top of the teetering Jenga tower we call a country, we’ll thrive as a more informed, accepting, and unified populous. So next time you hear that inner voice screech, “BUT THAT’S WRONG,” take a breath, step back and try adding pieces rather than pulling them out. We’re all stuck on the same wobbly tower. Why make a mess playing a tired old game when you could build something beautiful together?