In this divisive political climate, can we talk politics with family and friends? About Obamacare, abortion, immigration, kneeling professional football players, Hillary Clinton’s emails or President Trump’s mercurial behavior? Sadly, the common answer is: No.
I’ve consulted a dozen friends with whom I share common ground, and a majority say that in at least some family gatherings – and surely over dinner – “We avoid discussing national politics. It just stirs up hostility.”
What about larger gatherings that include more distant relatives, at a picnic perhaps, when the odds increase that people may range from moralistic liberals to rigid conservatives? We’ve tested that, too, a colleague responded – “Once, but never again.”
Recently, my wife drove to Daytona Beach with a former Kentucky high school classmate to enjoy several days with a relative. From Ohio all the way to Florida and back, and during their visits in the Sunshine State, political issues were never broached. Even though political commentary dominates news media every day, every hour, it had not even been necessary to say that politics were off-limits.
It’s hardly surprising in the context of radio and television talking heads who often are loud, cocksure, insistent, spouting propaganda rather than analysis. Liberals believe this, they say, and conservatives believe that. When tenets of my worldview are referenced, however, I sometimes believe little or nothing of what they assume I do. Omnipresent social media makes matters worse by forwarding and tweeting negative, edgy commentary.
And the partisan divide spreads. Celebrities hurt their causes when they turn vulgar against President Trump. Opinion polls reveal that a majority of respondents want to raise the tone of national conversation, not lower it. They wish that the president himself would set an example by avoiding constant derogatory tweets directed at those who disagree with him.
There are ways to have safe conversations. Therapist and self-help author Harville Hendrix tells his clients that “talking is the most dangerous thing people do.” Allowing for some overstatement, his message that we learn to “talk without criticism, listen without judgment,” is spot-on. Tone is important. Keep the volume down. Use “I” instead of “you” statements when speaking with others. The latter comes across as lecturing and accusatory.
When I was a member of a large church in Toledo, one participant in a small group discussing current church policies kept repeating, “What YOU need to understand is….” What a turn off. How much more effective to have begun “I believe” or “my sense of the matter is,” both of which take ownership of an opinion without judging others for their presumed ignorance.
Also, it can prove helpful to deal with an individual issue such as gun rights rather than the whole world of Trump or Obama. A friend recently took responsibility in saying that traditional Christian opposition to same-sex activity and women holding topmost leadership positions in churches is as valid today as millennia ago. Knowing that it differed from my own inclusive views of gender relations and equality, he stated his position without an attempt to convert. We remain friends and continue to respect each other’s honesty. Relationships can grow deeper when we step outside our ideational bubbles and calmly engage others in matters of personal and, especially, national interest. Avoidance by itself can create tension by conscious and unconscious reminders that we can’t go there.
Not all citizens want civil discourse in all circumstances; examples abound of social injustices that cry out for attention – and demand a fitting response. Absent terrifying cases, however, effective communication techniques are well known: Ask questions, listen (Where – deep down – are they coming from?), and avoid responding with “rubbish,” “hogwash” or “you can’t be serious.” (In groups of like-minded friends, of course, you can respond in entertaining ways!)
When family circumstances don’t permit free exchanges, sometimes it’s just better to focus on how to improve a car’s gas mileage when driving. Better to practice avoidance than suffer estrangement. And try to remember that we are not fully rational beings. In his perceptive study, “The Righteous Mind,” psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that “scientists and philosophers have overplayed the role reason plays in our lives.”
Our wonderfully complex, adaptive brains cannot get everything right, and were not designed to; more often than not, intuition and gut instinct are in the driver’s seat. Inasmuch as that is true, humility and respect for rooted, genuine differences among people is required in the democratic way of doing politics.
How else to find a way out of our present political morass? Occasionally magic happens. More often it requires effort. Important work usually does.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. He is the co-editor of “The Conservative Press in Twentieth-Century America” and is a recipient of the Distinguished Historian award from the Ohio Academy of History. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.