Ok y’all, I think I have it figured out. I have been (as a lot of us have been) watching all kinds of things unfold in the past year/five years/37 years and as you may know, I have never particularly considered myself either a Conservative or a Liberal or a Moderate, so I tend to try to read and watch and listen to all the sides.1 I have now identified one key skill that, if practiced by any and all of us, will make literally everything better.
Here it is, are you ready?
Call the good good, and call the bad bad.
Wherever you find it.
So many people these days go around using words like “divisive” and “polarizing.” I think we can all agree that it seems like more people are further onto their side, whatever side it is, than they used to be, even just a few years ago. What tends to worry me in media and social media and conversations, is when I see this tendency (from both/all sides) to defend My Side in all things, and find fault with Your Side, in all things. The truth is, there’s still plenty to disagree with about what Good is and what Bad is — but I find that a massive massive chunk of the arguments we’re all having aren’t even about that. A bunch of the time, we don’t even disagree on that. We just want the emphasis shifted to where Their Side messed up, but not talk about where My Side did.
When this happens, some of the tools that end up being employed:
Dehumanization.2 When you make the Other Side a monolith of Rednecks or Libruls or Trumpists or Communists or Anarchists or Illegals or Evangelicals or Millennials or whatever, you are very concisely saying that They are a completely different species, and whatever they’re about, I’m not interested.
Instead, try “What values do they hold that drive their perspective on this?” “What do they fear?” “What may they have lost?” And above all, find the answers to those questions by reading and listening to those people themselves, not consistently hearing someone else’s version of their beliefs. Look for HUMAN motives, because…. they’re all humans. They’re not animals, they’re not villains. They’re not doing whatever they’re doing because they hate you. They’re not doing it because they want to swim in gold like Scrooge McDuck or trample on the corpses of your children. Now… there are a very few people who I believe have become incredibly self-preserving and have managed to squash their own capacity for empathy almost to nothing. But a) those are not most people, and b) you don’t know why. You are not their judge. You don’t know the whole story. And even if you did know the whole story, justice is not yours. Look for human motives. Look for humanity.
Redirection. We all do it. “BUT WHAT ABOUT—” “BUT THEY—” “BUT NOBODY—” “BUT EVERYBODY—” This is a handy tool to avoid any accountability and/or self-reflection. It is a very quick way to make sure that I am not required to thoughtfully search my own heart or My People’s platform and see if there is something that is not how it should be. Don’t look for something THEY did that was WORSE.
Instead, if there is a weakness or a wrong stance in your beliefs, if you are faced with an inconsistency, if the people you support behave badly, resist the urge to point to something worse in someone else. Embrace the self-reflection. Take your spanking if you deserve it. Apologize if it’s called for. Make repairs if you spewed words that turned out to be the wrong words. Don’t wallow in shame, but learn from it. You do not have to turn in your card and switch sides. What I am asking is that you behave with intellectual and moral integrity, consistency, and honesty. Which will 100% require finding fault in Your side, and merit in Theirs. Instead of “But that ONE time MY people did that and YOU guys pitched a fit and now YOU’RE doing it—“ Try this: “If that behavior is wrong, it was wrong when my side did it, and it’s wrong when your side does it. Maybe the truth is that we actually agree that it’s a wrong behavior, and that’s something that unites us. I’m sorry for my part.”
Spin. I have heard everyone doing this. And it can be a fine line, between looking for those human motives, and spinning something bad as though it’s good. Saying that you can empathize with a person’s anger/desperation/fear/motive/whatever is not the same thing as condoning violence, dishonesty, or cruelty.
Instead, as I said, call the good good, call the bad bad. “I can understand that they are feeling incredibly attacked in the current cultural climate. But what they did was wrong and absolutely calls for accountability.” “I can understand that they feel incredibly hopeless and desperate and feel that no other course of action is possible right now to get where they feel we need to go. But those actions were wrong and are not constructive tools.” Nobody deserves to be shot or kicked out or shamed for the rest of their lives. But maybe they do deserve the accountability that comes from making a wrong choice, and that can be a learning opportunity. You will find that you will lose much less credibility, than when you are doing backbends defending things that are indefensible.
Two things suffer when we defend our tribe in all things, instead of practicing objectivity:
Firstly, we lose the ability to constructively critique those we love. We start to swallow everything our favorite politician or news source says, without the need for that difficult, complicated thing called discernment. We become zealots. We become attracted to more and more volatile, extreme ideas that bolster our side. We also make it well-known that we ourselves will not be critiqued (“DON’T SHAME ME!”) and so we cease to grow. (FYI shame and critique/accountability are NOT the same thing. It is not admirable to shut out any and all forms of accountability or critique in your life and call it “shame-resistance” or “being true to myself.” We are all wrong, somewhere. We all need the ability to have our wrong-ness revealed to us, and to learn from it.) In a phrase: “My side can do no wrong.”
Second, we lose the ability to love those we critique. They. Them. That side. Back to dehumanization – if we have convinced ourselves that they’re inherently less-than or evil, we will believe that every word out of their mouth and every policy out of their pen is bad before we’ve even judged it on its own merit. And that the people, themselves, are bad. Aka, “Their side can do no right.”
I believe my faith is crucial to this, because it acknowledges that 1) there is a Good, there is a Right, there is a Just, and 2) I’m not it. And neither are you. And frankly, I’m not any closer than you. My faith says that there is a standard of truth and equity and universal compassion, it’s not all up to any ole body’s opinion; and that I will consistently fall short of it and so will my favorite teachers, politicians, pundits, leaders, and friends.
No person is without some good and right motives, as we’re all made in the image of God. And no person is without places where we catastrophically miss the mark, as we’re all not God.
Please do this exercise with me, on any/all areas you want (religion, a certain policy, political affiliation, ethnicity, nationality, favorite basketball team, whatever):
I consider myself a ____________________.
Sometimes, my group has a tendency to __________________ in a way that I do not believe to be healthy.
Sometimes, the people we are in opposition with have a good point when they ___________________.
All of us are doing the best we can, with where we came from, and what we know.
1Except for the past several years, during which time I pretty much have something sticky on a counter or someone yelling in my face at all waking moments so I’m not entirely as well-read as I’d like to be.
2Re: dehumanization. I just listened to a podcast episode on Unlocking Us from Brene Brown on this (1/13/21 ep) that was excellent, and put to words so many things I’ve been thinking recently aka since probably college. She really breaks down the psychology/etc behind the idea of dehumanization and the catastrophic effects it has when it is permitted to grow as rampant as it has in this country particularly in the past 5 years. There are and have always been politicians and policies I’ve supported and critiqued on both sides of the aisle but this single phenomenon has encapsulated and overshadowed the biggest of my concerns since 2016. You may not agree with Brene’s view on the political issues she talks about, but I urge you to push through and listen to what she says about this danger. I have often thought: the worst human atrocities (genocide, human trafficking, mass incarceration, slavery, concentration camps, whatever) across history and the globe have been enacted under the name of fascism, communism, anarchy, monarchy, colonialism, tribalism, religion, anti-religion — the ideologies are all over the map but the common thread in every single one is a campaign and culture of dehumanization. We have to resist it at every single turn, mercilessly. We have to refuse to engage in it in any capacity. We have to recognize it in our leaders and media outlets and call out for accountability and try to change the general discourse, on both/all sides of the aisle. We have to not quit being bothered by it. Never accept it. Here’s me, calling it bad. It’s bad. It’s always bad.