bad manners: how we talk politics

This week is election week in Middle Tennessee, and that means the phone calls and door knockers are out in droves. Sometimes the eager human standing on my porch has such a painful combination of nervous earnestness that I am tempted to say I’ll vote for a candidate I find unacceptable in almost every way. My favorite moment so far has been with a nearly prepubescent-looking young man who came to the door. I was dressed inappropriately, my daughter looked abandoned as she stood crying for juice with her hair only half braided, and I was holding onto my dog’s collar for dear life as she tried to attack our visitor (or maybe escape to her freedom in the civilized wilds of our neighborhood). Despite the fact that it clearly was NOT a good time, my young guest launched into his shpeal. I already supported his candidate, so I tried to listen, hunched over to hide my pajamas, clutching the dog with one hand while unsuccessfully attempting to smooth my daughter’s hair with the other. We crossed the Rubicon of reasonable interaction when I realized he was determined to use his entire script, and was actually trying to casually get to know me so he could discern which issue he should emphasize. After a few failed attempts to ask me to chat about my background or neighborhood, I tried to gently but abruptly say, “This is really not a great time for me to have a conversation, but I am grateful you are on our street, and I appreciate [specific things] about your candidate, and I’d love a yard sign. Thanks for stopping by.” If there is a way to be both gentle and abrupt, I don’t know it, so I’m sure my supportive words were diminished by my haggard and rushed delivery. Indeed, I think we all felt relieved it was over (except for the damn dog!).

If we are unwilling to talk with people about our evolving views on life in a civil society, are we not helping sustain an uncivil one? 

I have equal parts admiration and cringiness for such campaign volunteers.  Admiration because they believe so strongly in the necessity of an informed and engaged citizenry that they brave the heat, wild animals, hostile encounters, and awkward interactions with people like me just to tell us an election is coming and they have some thoughts to share! I admire their effort and determination. I cringe because they don’t know who will open the door: an ally or an adversary. Yesterday a representative called to tell me, with nary a pause for breath, that her candidate was committed to American values, not lying and politics-as-usual, just like President Trump. She went on to say we needed more tax relief for job creators, less government regulation, and a solid governor who was very pro-life and very pro-gun. I attempted to abruptly but gently (again, not possible) interrupt her to say, “I appreciate you calling but I don’t think it is possible to be “very” pro-gun and pro-life and I think most of those policies would be terrible for our state. Thanks for calling though!” As the call ended, I wondered why I didn’t ask her what she cared about instead of simply trying to get off the phone. Could I engage a person reading a script like that to ask them how de-regulation will help the citizenry, or how being pro-gun lines up with being pro-life? I know these positions make sense politically, but how are they aligned in real life? Do they come from the same ethical framework? She might have had a compelling argument, and I could have learned from her. Instead, I gave my opinion and ended the call, as if a conversation was not even possible.

Is it possible to discuss politics without getting defensive or aggressive? The lack of conversations like the one I imagined above is directly linked to the divisive speech and acts that fill our public sphere. We don’t know how to talk to each other about the things we care about. We don’t know how to care about our own interests and the interests of others. Even worse, we aren’t allowed to wonder aloud about the things we aren’t fully sure about.

It is considered bad manners to bring up political issues at many supper tables or work lunches, but I am advocating for exactly that. In an age in which some of our news, most of our political ads (and many Presidential tweets, for that matter) seem to stand alone, beyond any context or factual evidence, face to face discourse about issues or candidates is a remarkable thing. What if, instead of thinking it was bad manners to talk politics, we tried to talk about our hopes or convictions or understanding of economics and regulatory processes with other people?  What if we talked about school board candidates with people whose kids go to Title 1 schools, charter schools, and zoned schools, or with principals, teachers and folks who work in the central office? If we only discuss such things with “safe people” (aka people with whom we agree), then we are far more likely to vote in an uninformed way.

If we are unwilling to talk with people about our evolving views on life in a civil society, are we not helping sustain an uncivil one?  I know many have been burned in political conversations that go off the rails; however, it seems to me that we are trapped in a prison we are all actively building.  We say, “I just can’t imagine supporting that person” or, “How on earth does X think it is okay to believe this while voting for that?” What if we instead directly asked, “Will you help me understand your thoughts on this candidate (or this issue)?” or, “I honestly struggle with part of the platform. What are your thoughts?” Some folks know exactly what they believe, while others struggle to coherently justify their voting record. Those with strong beliefs need not bully those who are uncertain. Imagine being the person others come to in order to learn about an issue or a candidate. Imagine being a person who engages in conversations not to persuade or to win, but to understand, to inform, and to open new possibilities for thinking. Political conversations require patience and curiosity; it requires humility to realize you might not have thought through every possible outcome or implication of your position. Nevertheless, such conversations are necessary! If we don’t like our political climate, we need to talk face to face about candidates and issues with one another. Let’s make apathy, bullying and ignorance bad manners. Let’s talk with each other.