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.

the state of us: in defense of context

Jon Stewart is a brilliant thinker and satirist, and in my view the public sphere is less informed without his voice.  When Stewart ran Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, pollsters claimed that a majority of millennials looked to Stewart for primary news; he was their information source.  Many older Americans decried this as a sign of the decline of our country’s intellectual rigor, or of the lack of seriousness and discernment young people possessed.  To be fair, Stewart himself adamantly claimed he was not, nor did he try to be, a trusted source for news.  He is a comedian, and that is all he claimed to be.  However, I think Stewart regularly offered us something news agencies—and most people—lack: context.

How do we come to know the things we know? Could the answer illuminate the sources of our alleged divide?  Our fractious citizenry is a result of our inability to contextualize our unique realities.  We live in circles largely segregated along economic, racial, ethnic and political lines.  These lines, invisible though they may be, are powerful, and they keep us from interacting regularly with people whose experiences and backgrounds are largely different from our own.  We love to yell about the problems this insulated living causes. “Get out of your echo chamber!” “You live in such a bubble.” “You only reached that conclusion using confirmation bias.” The list of accusations goes on, even though our divided communities ensure many of us DO live in bubbly echo chambers. 

The work of self examination required to recognize my bias, to trace its roots, and to mitigate its impact, can be exhausting.  Nevertheless, we cannot be responsible stewards of our citizenship without contextualizing our experiences with the experiences of people who live very differently than we do.  For instance, if my view of police is based on the positive experiences of white friends who live in safe, wealthy areas, then I might passionately defend all policemen as dutiful servants who are patient, respectful and levelheaded in every instance.  On the other hand, if my view of police is based on the negative experiences of black friends who live in a part of town overlooked by investment, then I might passionately accuse all policemen of being overly aggressive and suspicious, more likely to use force than to have a conversation.  Without the context of another’s point of view, our perspectives become reactionary.  In every interaction, we need to recognize our own perspectives and then intentionally contextualize those opinions with the thoughts of others.

The way we access information also demonstrates our need for contextualization.  Increasingly, we are consumers of “the media” rather than informed citizens who advocate for important ideas and people.  We are reactive to sensation, rather than intentionally engaged in the diverse realities of living in America.  I don’t blame us for this reactionary living.  The onslaught of information to which we are privy is overwhelming.  Most of us lack the capacity to curate which information is helpful or necessary, so we give that job to trending social media feeds, and to companies who own news stations and papers.  Without knowing we have done it, we allow them to decide what is necessary, or what angle matters.  Some do a better job than others at providing context for the information they share.  However, we often consume what they present as isolated fact, rather than discovering an independent, historically rooted and thoughtfully framed context.

The point here is not to demonize “the media.”  As David Dark often says,  “there is no the media.”  Rather, we are all implicated in a system that keeps us uninformed, spoon fed with snippets that make us furious, stripping away both nuance and context.  We are implicated because we consume our news in this way, like cows huddled in a corner rather than exploring the expansive field before us. 

How might we shift from passive acceptance to actively contextualizing our views of the world? A few thoughts:

1)   Take inventory of the ways you engage news.  Do you spend energy informing yourself, or do you accept arbitrary knowledge of the school board, affordable housing accessibility, limits to religious freedom, state of welfare, and the condition of your state’s guns laws? Observe your pursuit or avoidance of “news.”

2)   Think about that pursuit or avoidance.  If you avoid the news, is it because it feels too “political” and somehow dirty? If this resonates with you then know you are surely not alone. However, consider this: The ability to insulate yourself, protected from any policy decision your government makes, is a privilege not enjoyed by many who struggle pay check to pay check.  It is also worth noting here that when you make a habit of giving your political power away, it is very difficult to get it back.

3)   If you think most news sources are terribly biased, consider sampling all of them.  Rather than repeat attacks of, “Fake News!” or “They have an agenda!”, take time to listen to a variety of sources. If you believe that a certain outlet is overtly biased yet successful, it behooves the informed citizen to spend time getting to know those powerful voices.  When you listen to disparate voices it might make you angry, but it could also provide context for you to understand the many forces at play around a given issue. Such exposure might help you communicate well with people who lean differently from you.

We live lives largely contextualized by the people we know best, and by news sources we find agreeable.  Such self-referentially rooted context is no context at all, and leads to the passionate defense of positions not fully explored.  As citizens who share a country, we fundamentally understand we share spaces with others.  As long as we value only the opinions of those who are the most like us, we will continue to react badly to those who have a different way of experiencing or seeing the world.

Note well that the forces around you do not provide context; indeed, if you are weary of today’s reactionary blaming, do the work to contextualize your own experience with the experiences of others.  Contextualize your acquisition of news with outlets who spin in service of a different power.  It is the job of each of us to build a bigger table, invite others to have a seat, and then share our experiences.  If we do, perhaps we can stop reacting with anger and blame for people who dare respond differently.  Offering your story to the stories of others will bring insight to our shared concerns.  As Jon Stewart once mocked cable news, “This portion of our program is brought to you by… Context. It’s the shit you have in your tape library that gives seemingly isolated instances perspective.”

how binaries destroy us: in honor of father john misty

People love to say our country is divided, and it certainly seems to me that it is.  The more interesting observation for my money, however, is on the nature of that divide.  I’m sick of the old ones—and they don’t seem to fit anymore anyway.  Democrat/Republican, urban/rural, public/private, rich/poor, Christian/all-the-others, progressive/conservative, yuppie/hippie, dominant/minority, those who “get it”/those who don’t…they’re all examples of binary thinking that strike me as rather simple, and frankly, as evidence of unexamined thinking. 

And yet, I have whole-heartedly rolled around in such binaries for the last politically-crazed year like my dog in freshly laid mulch: with a relish that is both nauseating and a little baffling.  So why?  Why do we refuse to bring our life experience, which is most definitely un-binary, to bear on the way we describe the tensions we feel with each other?  Why do we pretend that all who kneel do not respect those who served our country, while all who stand do not care about those marginalized by injustice?  The answers lie in understanding the foundational ways in which we relate to and contextualize each other. 

Why do we pretend that all who kneel do not respect those who served our country, while all who stand do not care about those marginalized by injustice? 

I believe our tribal instincts are exacerbated by our immersion in segregated communities.  While most of us live, play and worship in racially and economically segregated spaces, almost all of us connect online in politically segregated arenas.  Our ability to respectfully approach others with curiosity is severely hampered when we only hear attacks about “them.”  The dependence many have on social media to connect with others and validate their own value tends to be—at best—equal parts sincere engagement and performative pandering.  We know this, and feel it in our souls even as we compulsively check our feeds for extrinsic encouragement.  There is a place in each of us that understands we are complicit in participating in this bullshit exchange-space, and this is the place from which our cries for authenticity arise, even as we exchange our own experience of ambiguity for binaries that exclude others and comfort us. 

That for many, President Trump’s shoot from the hip style is refreshingly authentic is hilarious for some and devastating for others.  Some of us know him as an honest and authentic outsider, unsullied by the “swamp.”  Some of us abhor him as a fundamentally selfish and unethical hypocrite, amazed daily that others can’t see through the show.  The former group, despairing in the inability to feel heard and respected by society, celebrate the President as embodying the authenticity they crave.  The latter group think Trump’s election reflects a great mistake, a blip in our otherwise just and thoughtful democracy.  Absurd as it is, the alienation they felt in the last eleven months overwhelms any notion of connection they shared with fellow citizens.  Instead, they buy into binaries.  I sometimes resonate, feeling the fabric of society had been torn, and that I no longer belong to, or even understand those who live on the other side of the binaries we allow to define us. 

I sometimes feel that the fabric of society had been torn, and that I no longer belong to, or even understand those who live on the other side of the binaries we allow to define us. 

For some who allow binaries to define their views of community, they now gravitate toward a new view: that the President exactly reflects the reality of the sentiments held by voters.  In short, Trump is America—or should I say, ‘Murica—and we deserve him.  This may very well be true, and there is certainly daily evidence to support such a claim.  We are hateful and mean, consumed with self, entitled victims.  We are, in fact, bad at taking care of each other.  But we are also really good at it, and my contention is that binary thinking prevents us from recognizing both of these facts.  Thus, viewing the era of Trump through such extremes is insufficient and, frankly, does not offer an analytical framework nuanced enough to understand this moment.  Could it be that we are all selfish jerks and compassionate neighbors?  Could it be that we are all presenting lovely masks of ourselves and taking strides toward authenticity? 

This brings me, with great pleasure, to the person and persona of Josh Tillman, aka J. Tillman, aka Father John Misty.  A folk singer/songwriter/rocker, Tillman presents the most interesting tableau of meta-authenticity I have come across in a spell.  While creating and performing critically and popularly acclaimed music, Tillman is loathed by many who dismiss him as a self-obsessed crackpot philosopher who waxes poetic about the nature of performance in America today.  Yes, maybe.  But his awareness of self, his self-mockery, his ease with conflicting ideas even as he articulates them passionately, makes me a fan.  He deconstructs society’s impulses even as he deconstructs his own drives, all while acting boldly on those drives!  It is hilariously refreshing to hear him think out loud.  For Tillman, the notion of binary thinking is outright absurd, a shoe that does not fit any foot in the kingdom. 

Reading about and listening to Tillman, where ambiguity and nuance organically infuse every thought, offers a clear juxtaposition with destructive and ill-fitting binaries. In processing through this last year, it is evident that we have, as an American culture, adopted what I call a binary cycle, in which our basic notion of self worth arises out of belonging to one side, and this becomes the rubric by which we judge others as well.  Our thinking about others, and, importantly, about self, is dictated by binaries.  Extremes certainly helped elect our President, but they have also reduced us to thinking almost exclusively in terms of us and them.  Tillman is a reminder that these binaries, and the biases to which they give birth, are, in fact, the foundation of our fractured society.  This is why American society has fallen with no means to get up.

(But there I go again.)  No we haven’t.  Our society is not defined primarily by our binaries.  We demonize “them” all day long, but we are also a compassionate people who often care sacrificially for others.  In Nashville, TN, in the midst of the travel ban on majority-Muslim countries and the halting of refugee resettlement, agencies who work with immigrant and refugee populations were flooded with volunteers and donations.  Also in Nashville, gun violence has risen dramatically in parts of the city inhabited mostly by minorities.  While many people with power seem oblivious to this crisis, some of us are starting to notice curiosity among those who heretofore have refused to link gentrification, education and development policies to the displacement, disruption and despair of many marginalized communities.   I see evidence every day that we all have a capacity to care about “them.”  We the people are totally selfish and greedy, and generous and compassionate.  We are not a binary, and when we think of ourselves and others through a binary lens we lose sight of ourselves and destroy the very fabric of society that still holds us together.

Our society is not defined primarily by our binaries.  We demonize “them” all day long, but we are also a compassionate people who often care sacrificially for others.

So this is my call, in honor of  those who kneel and stand, and in thanks to our dear Father John, to invite more of us to join his conversation.  Can we begin to recognize how binary thinking dehumanizes ourselves and others?  Can we reject totalizing statements and replace them with curious listening?  Can we create new habits of recognizing our commonalities before only seeing divides?  Can we reject binaries in favor of expanding our us?