Sometimes writers have a piece that is brewing in them for quite some time. It goes nowhere. And then some moment happens, and the piece writes itself. This is that piece.
I had a walk with a dear friend last week. We got to talking politics — my least favorite topic these days and a mood downer if ever there was one. We bemoaned the state of our world, and then Dora said (fictionalized name to protect the hero worship that might otherwise come her way): “It is all one man’s fault.” I didn’t need to hear “Trump” to know where she was going.
I queried, “One man?” Could it possibly be that one person is responsible for the state of our mess? I then explained that I hadn’t voted for Trump and was not a supporter of him. In the past, I have often added, “But even a broken clock is right twice a day,” however I didn’t think it wise here.
Instead, I shared that after four decades of being a registered Democrat, I had changed my status to independent. I explained that while I don’t support Trump, I wouldn’t give the Democrats a pass on what I considered many bad behaviors. That was when her temper flew, and I was stymied.
Mind you, this is a dear friend who has been a model of evenness and thoughtfulness for decades of friendship. Rather than continuing with this painful conversation, I asked one final question before I let the topic drop: “If all our evil is due to one man, will having a Democrat in office make us whole?”
I withheld my concerns about possible damage to supposedly apolitical institutions, the cancel culture, and worst of all, our inability to engage opposing views civilly.
I realized that even 60-plus-year-olds can get triggered — not just our kids. The conversation left me sad for days and wondering whether a simple process could help us to explore different points of view. Could my friend and I have had a more constructive discussion?
I noodled on this for a while and consulted my husband, who suggested I find a less futile topic to write about. Instead, I remain committed to trying two simple steps next time the opportunity presents itself.
Step 1: Present the Other Side
In the case of Dora, could I wear her shoes, and articulate why my anger took me to Trump as the sole perpetrator of our animus and upheaval? Would I start with his divisive tweets? His revolving door of advisers that he diminishes, leaving them to settle the score? DACA? A profound concern whether the justices he appoints would rewrite the Constitution in a bad way?
If I could argue this, and also add a splash of his vainglory, I could internalize Dora’s truly felt pain.
Step 2: Poke Holes in Your Own Argument
I needed to find the weakest part of my argument, which would give credence to Dora’s view. Why does President Trump fire so many people? Why does he often seem to pour oil on a small flame, thereby turning it into a forest fire? Why does he turn any question into a validation of him? There are more.
Of course, in the spirit of mutuality, those holding Dora’s views would need to answer to the ill-gotten FISAs, the reliance on the paid opposition research of the Steele dossier, the Russian “hoax,” politicizing apolitical institutions, and the management of Michael Flynn. There are more.
I recognize how difficult it is in our current climate to try this exercise. We are so hardened in our views that we’d rather lament than explore. So here is my challenge to any reader interested in sowing some seeds of understanding:
— Articulate the other side with honest effort — not caricatures.
— Critique your own views and find their weaknesses.
— Identify where there are shared goals.
For example, isn’t “opportunity for all” a common ideal even if we differ on how to get there? Can the same be said for constructing a safety net?
Back to my walk with Dora, could I have engineered a better conversation if I had asked that we step in the other’s shoes and argue the case?
In the words of Oscar Wilde, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Can we brave ourselves for complexity and nuance while doing a better job of explaining our views? Can we resist being triggered when seeking an understanding that might be a basis for building something meaningful?
Isn’t it worth a try?