I used to constantly jump right into the political fray on Facebook. I posted provocative liberal opinions, proudly declaring my self-evident righteousness. I expressed contrived befuddlement at how anybody could accept conservative ideology. I got into heated, multi-day debates with people that I would never persuade, knowing that I myself would never be willing to be persuaded by them.
It got me really worked up. It kept me up at night, going over the debate in my mind, anticipating my opponent’s next move, and crafting my rebuttal. It gnawed at the back of my mind throughout the day, and it pounced on me out of nowhere, engulfing me in a cloud of indigence.
And it didn’t make me any happier or wiser.
Lately I’ve been trying to avoid political arguments online. (Not that I’ve been totally successful. I’m a sucker for gun control arguments in the wake of mass shootings.) I haven’t grown apathetic with the political system. I still believe that we have the power of the vote and the dollar. I still read about politics and discuss the issues with family and friends. I’m closely tracking the Democratic primary.
But I am no longer interested in arguing about politics. I don’t want to engage in pissing contests about who is smarter or whose ideology is more logically consistent. I want to work through the difficult issues that we face so that I can know what to do with what little power I have.
It’s no great insight that our political discourse is broken, but that’s the point that I’ve been working up to here. As former University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe said in his resignation announcement,
“We stopped listening to each other.”
But really it’s more than that. It’s not just that we don’t listen to the other side, we have come to believe that the other side is actively trying to hurt us.
President Obama is trying to destroy our country, make us weak. The Koch brothers are sucking the middle class dry to line their own pockets. I could go on, but I just Googled libtards and it’s making me sad.
So I have an idea, a way to talk about politics. I’ve been trying it lately, and I can attest that it works, but it isn’t always easy. (I still struggle with the NRA.) Here it is:
Assume that people who disagree with you want what’s best for you.
That’s it. It’s the old adage, “We all agree on where we need to go, we just disagree on how to get there.” Nobody wants to destroy the country or the planet. Everybody wants the economy to improve and individuals to prosper. Everyone wants to leave a beautiful world to their children and grandchildren. Everyone wants to be happy and free.
When someone comes at you with a perspective that you just can’t fathom, they are not attacking you. They are just trying to tackle the same difficult problems that you are trying to tackle. They’re working with you toward a freer, happier, and more prosperous world.
So work with them. Listen to their ideas and share your own. Find common ground–not shared belief, but a common space in which to exist with divergent opinions. The whole idea of this democracy thing is not that we will all argue to consensus. It’s that we will work together by listening to each other so that we can solve the problems that have no easy solutions. And that will never work if we believe that, underneath it all, those who disagree with us are out to get us.
The best part about this is that it allows me to get less angry. I’m still passionate, I still get worked up, and I still argue about politics on Facebook. But I spend fewer sleepless nights rehearsing.