Jan 22, 2011

Making Politics Polite

I never talk about politics on Facebook. I made that mistake once—found myself unable to resist posting a comment on a former classmate’s status update. I returned to Facebook two days later and was mortified to find my comment had set off a firestorm on her profile as she and friends of various political persuasions argued back and forth. I posted an apology for stirring things up, and slunk away shamefaced, resolving never to broach political topics again on Facebook.

The truth is—the social rule about never discussing sex, religion, or politics in polite company notwithstanding—I enjoy discussing and even debating politics. But I rarely do it. I realize many people are either uninterested or discomfited by such discussions. Further, many of my good friends hold political views quite different from mine. More than once I’ve sat quietly, biting my tongue, while friends rail against political viewpoints or political figures I support. Sometimes, I’ll gamely try to find common ground, points on which we can agree. I guess I just don’t want to create an awkward social situation, so I usually restrict my political discussions to those I feel are likely to share my views. In truth, I think most of us prefer to preach to the choir. It’s much more comfortable to have our opinions validated then challenged.

And yet recent events have gotten me reconsidering my approach to talking politics. First, our school was invited to attend the swearing-in of Ohio’s new governor, John Kasich, a Republican. The ceremony took place on Monday, January 10, 2011 and we were there, with prime seats on the floor of the majestic Ohio State Theatre—fifty mostly black kids and their teachers, surrounded by mostly white, richly-dressed, clean-cut Republican types, all looking like the overflow crowd at an Amway convention. We were gathered to watch democracy in action. I had arrived skeptical. I voted for Kasich but the vote was cast grudgingly; I was hardly a fan. I’d seen him and his opponent slinging mud at each other all this past fall, and I was pretty sure he was just another politician. Well, I left the Ohio State Theatre feeling differently. Oh, I was still convinced he’s just another politician, but I meant something different by that conviction now. “Just another politician” simply means he is “just another human being.” What I saw was a human being—a man of fervently held beliefs, a man of ambition who wants to do good. Sure, he may fall sway to the temptations of power, but then who among us can honestly be certain we would not be swayed if we were in his shoes.

This is a photo from the official swearing-in of Governor Kasich, which took place privately on the morning of January 10. We attended the ceremonial swearing-in later that same day, but unfortuantely none of the photos of that event are as good as this one. Will I agree with everything Kasich sets out to accomplish in Ohio? Probably not, but I'll always remember that he, like me, wants the best for Ohio and for America.

This insight from Kasich’s inauguration coupled with the my ruminations on the recent tragedy in Tucson, the media firestorm and finger-pointing following it, and our president’s beautiful speech at the memorial service for those who died. Like virtually every other reasonable person out there I know that the “tone” of debate in our country did not cause the shooting in Arizona. Still out of all this I have drawn a lesson: I think politics is worth discussing. More than that, it needs discussing.

That is what Congresswoman Giffords and those who gathered with her that day were there to do—to talk and to listen. If we would honor those who suffered and those who died we should strive to do the same. There’s much talk on the blogosphere, the radio airwaves, and cable news channels, but very little real discussion. We can carp about how negative and vitriolic the media is---but let’s face it they’re only giving us what we ask for. These are businesses, and no matter what they claim, their bottom line is. . .well, the bottom line, not any particular political point of view. If mudslinging and snappy sound-bites draw more listeners, readers, or viewers than reasoned, in-depth discussion they’ll keep bringing the former rather than the latter.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords

The fact is that we, the American people—not the politicians, not the lobbyists, not the special interests, not the media, not Big Government, not Sarah Palin or Barak Obama—are the problem. We have been lazy, content to accept spoon-fed sound-bites rather than to dig deep for the real meat of the subject at hand. We like complex issues boiled down to easily understood “us versus them” black and white. We prefer our news delivered in an entertaining way which appeals to our gut rather than our intellect. We have forgone real discussion with our neighbors who hold different views for self-congratulatory backslapping among like-minded friends. We have begged off with the excuse “But I’m not interested in politics.” But how can we afford the luxury of disinterest where issues that affect our lives so directly are concerned? We may not be interested in politics, but when the bill from the health insurance comes in the mail, when tax time rolls around we are certainly interested then. If only the special interests are interested in politics, then we will have politicians who cater only to their needs not ours. If we let the media do the heavy lifting of thinking about the political issues of the day, then we will only hear what is designed to keep us tuned in rather than what is designed to really make us think.

But here’s the thing. If we are the problem, then we are also the solution. I’d like to suggest that we start a conversation and bring politics out of the smoke filled-back room, the money-fueled radio or television studio and into polite conversation. Impossible, you say? I believe it is possible, because I’ve experienced it. There is one person who immediately comes to mind who I could truly discuss politics with, even though we were on opposite sides of the aisle on virtually every issue. His name is Grant Graves, and for the year he and I worked together, our discussions were truly eye-opening and enriching for both of us. I humbly offer from our experience four keys to how a real, productive, and polite conversation about politics might take place:

Grant Graves, one of my favorite conservatives. Check out this 2007 blog entry that touches on how Grant and I tackled the impolite subjects: politics, religion, and if not sex, at least women.

1. I believed in Grant’s good intentions and he believed in mine. Though he was a conservative and I was a liberal, we both presumed the other loved his country and desired the best for it. Now there’s not much money in this kind of approach, which is why you don’t hear it very much on talk radio. “He’s a good guy but I disagree with his ideas” isn’t nearly as exciting as “He is an evil man bent on destroying America.” But you and I aren’t making money from our political opinions, so there’s no need for us to ape the demagoguery and demonizing we hear in the media. We can acknowledge that, though we may differ in our ideas of how to get there, we share the same goals.

2. Grant always tried to see things from my perspective, and I tried to see things from his point of view. Grant did more than just try to intellectually understand my arguments; he tried to understand how it felt to be me—to see things the way I did, to walk in my shoes. And I did the same thing. Discussion isn’t just about talking—listening is equally important, if not more so. And in listening and seeking to understand, we often found we had more in common than we’d first thought.

3. We were willing to acknowledge the validity of opposing points of view when we saw them. I never felt I lost anything by conceding a point to Grant. Instead, I felt as if I’d gained something. Likewise, I knew that Grant never closed the door to having his mind changed. I knew that what I said mattered, that it was possible that Grant might be convinced by some aspect of my argument. A lot of people will tell you its “pointless” to talk about politics, and this is usually because they assume people have “already made up their minds.” Perhaps that is true of most people, but it wasn’t true of Grant. Don’t get me wrong—he had strong convictions, and he wouldn’t sway easily. But Grant was always humble enough to hold out the possibility he might be wrong. I strove to honor my friend by holding that same open-minded spirit. This willingness to concede a point is the key to compromise, and compromise far from being a dirty word, is the key to progress in our democracy.

4. Finally both Grant and I shared a faith that gave us perspective. Both of us believe in a God who is bigger than any politician or political point of view. His love and grace, and our relationship to Him supersede the economy and taxes, healthcare and warfare, and even hot button social issues like race, gay marriage, and abortion. In short we believe that there is more to this life and more than this life. So while our political beliefs are important they aren’t the most important thing. Incidentally, this is why the temptation to mix faith with politics is so dangerous. Whether the politics-dependent “social gospel” of the left or the “Let’s take back America for Jesus” evangelizing of the right, claiming Jesus for our side serves only to diminish Him.

There’s actually a fifth key that my friend J Carlos—another person I can freely and civilly discuss politics with—use as well. We begin our discussions with a question. Instead of barreling into a debate with a declaration: “Man, what is up with this Obamacare? It’s socialism!” or “Aren’t these Tea Partiers a bunch of racists?” which pushes the other person into the role of ally or enemy, J and I always begin with a question. “So what do you think of the new health care reform law?” or “What’s your opinion on the Tea Party?” We ask the question and then we listen to the answer. It helps us know from the beginning of the conversation where the other person stands, and helps us frame our own responses in a way that keeps the conversation warm rather than heated.

I think if more of us employed these five keys that worked so well for Grant, J, and me in our discussions of politics; if we demanded them from our media figures and refused to fuel with our dollars those who don’t follow these rules, then I think there really could be a change in the “tone of discourse” here in America.

I may never talk about politics on Facebook. Maybe the stream of status updates and comments isn’t the right format for discussion anyway. I’m not even sure this entry marks a shift towards more political opining here in this blog. But I do know that I would like to bring politics into polite conversation. And so, to my friends and readers-especially those who tend to lean more to the right, on the more conservative end of the spectrum--who are interested in a new way of discussing politics, I extend this invitation: Let’s talk.

"As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." Proverbs 27:17


Mai said...

I enjoyed reading this post. It reminded me of all the interesting conversations I sat in on - often not knowing enough about politics to contribute - but still enjoying the exchange. Still to this day I value both your and Grant's opinions. When a topic comes up that I don't know much about, I think to myself, "I wonder what Grant & Sean would have to say about this." It was like the two of you balanced each other out!!

Andrea said...

Yes. Yes, I think this is good, and smart. I have been learning the hard way that the value in sharing one's politics is in the exchange, in the dialogue, and less in the act of persuading, which rarely happens anyway. It's not that I don't want to rock the boat because I do, and I think it needs to be tossed about with the hard and fast facts of life, but I also think that people want to be respected and listened to. So, yes, politics can be polite in that we are all willing to listen, just make sure you share all of the goodness that you have to offer.

Miss you, friend. Hope you're well.

Whimsy Peddler said...

Also, that comment from "Andrea" was actually from Judith.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Sean. I miss you man. The other teacher, my new mentor and teacher/coach, is a staunch Democrat. But I respect him so deeply that even when we disagree, it's easy to value his ideas. You hit the ball out of the park. I guess politics is like religion; it hinges on relationship. If we don't have a good relationship, aka: if I don't respect you, then no matter what we talk about, it probably won't end well. I do have a great deal of respect for you and for my new fellow teacher. I also liked what you said about putting God in our political boxes. I just read Joshua this morning when Josh asks the Captain of the Heavenly Hosts. "Are you for us or them?" He replied neither. Translation: both. God loves Democrats and Republicans just as much as He loves Hebrew slaves and Jerico prostitutes. Great blog. Grant