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How did we get here?

How did we get here? I am sick at heart about the results of this election, and state of public discourse over the course of this election.

Why have we locked ourselves in our corners and refused to talk to each other, or even show one another common human decency? Why are we so entrenched in “the other side is stupid,” or “the other side is immoral” attribution errors? The vast majority of Americans, and indeed of human beings, I have met in my travels are both highly intelligent and highly moral. Of course, we’re all also highly imperfect. And that’s why we need to remember how to talk to each other, to care about each other, and to challenge each other. That takes energy. Instead, we’ve mostly resorted to basic name-calling!

Here’s how I got here

I can’t answer the question of how “we” got here. It’s too big. But I do know how I got here, and I suspect my story is not all that unusual. Maybe it helps.

I grew up in the heart of Red Country.  And I love a lot of people who voted for Trump. Family members, neighbors, friends. How could these people who helped me become the person I am vote for somebody who seems to me the very antithesis of everything I care about. Well before Trump came along, though, I disagreed, vehemently, with their politics. And because I couldn’t figure out how to disagree with so many people I cared so much about, I never went back after I left for college. I spent the next couple of decades finding “my people” and feeling exiled from home at the same time.

The other night I woke up at 3 am wondering what country I should move to if Trump won. Suddenly, I was plotting my escape again, just like the first time I left home. But this time I want to stay and fight. More importantly, I want to stay and love. No matter who wins tonight, we are going to need a lot of love to heal the wound that this election has inflicted, or at least revealed.

Like the vast majority of Americans, I’ve spent the last twenty years talking mostly with other like-minded people, and simply ignoring those who have a different stance than mine on politics–specifically, on abortion or gun control or education or economics. Partly out of laziness, partly out of fear.

Fear

What do I have to be afraid of?  Like most people’s fears, mine developed when I was young and vulnerable. Not unique to me but hardly universal, they also grew out of being female and nerdy.

At work, people didn’t believe I was smart enough to do the job because I was female and, worse, blonde.

“I know you don’t understand what you’re reading,” said the only woman executive at the company when she saw me with the Wall Street Journal.

“I didn’t know they let pretty girls into Princeton. You coulda gone to Ole Miss. You’d get more dates that way!” the CEO exclaimed.

He was right. The problem, one well-meaning friend explained to me, was not that I wasn’t pretty. It was just that I was so–weird!  

I couldn’t find satisfaction in work or love. Afraid, I just ran away to college when I was 18 and never went back, heading to the edges of the country, first the East Coast, then the West.

Like most Americans, I’ve retreated to my corner where most of the people I interact with day to day agree with me. And I’ve lost touch with my country.

It’s hard to be out of step with the people around you. It’s a little bit scary. One of the people I’m closest to has a very different worldview than most of the people in San Francisco, where I now live, and it’s brutally hard for him. I’m afraid I haven’t done enough to make it easier.  And when I’ve gone home, I’ve just kept my political views to myself. I’ve not engaged.

Stupidity

Back to being 18. Hurt and lonely, and wanting to embrace my newfound home away from home, I rejected the attitudes I’d left behind as “stupid.” This was just defense mechanism, of course. I don’t actually feel smarter than others; usually I feel more baffled and confused than anything else. Moreover, as my grandmother used to say, pretty is as pretty does, smart is as smart does. Neither attribute is absolute, or all that important, in the end. Even though I believed that, it was easy to dismiss both the opinions and the people I disagreed with as “stupid” rather than challenge them, or try to understand them.  My response was–well, stupid.

And it has become clear how dangerous succumbing to that kind of attribution error is during this election.

Recently I went back to Red Country for a visit and saw a bumper sticker: “My kid beat your honor roll student’s ass.” On the one hand, I find that offensive and alarming. On the other hand, watching the way the coverage of this campaign has gone down, I feel some compassion for the driver’s frustration. Not just compassion, but kinship. I too wanted to lash out at the people who thought I was too stupid to do my job just because I was blonde and female. But I’m five feet tall and not exactly muscle-bound, so that wasn’t really an option or a credible threat.

Thinking about that bumper sticker, I am ready to concede defeat. In this election, his kid did beat my honor roll student’s ass. And, as long as we are talking in metaphor and not about my actual children, I’ll admit that we sort of deserved it.

I am redoubling my commitment to try to understand the people who hold very different political views than mine. Not just the opinions, the people. I want to understand why “they” think what “they” think, feel the way “they” feel. I want to stop thinking of them as “they” and start seeing people as people. Because thinking of people who disagree with me as “them” leads me to dehumanize “them,” which clouds my ability to think clearly and to behave decently. So, I want to listen with the intent to understand not to disagree. I want to state my positions in a way that demonstrates at the very least basic human decency, and at the best, love.

Morality

A couple of weeks ago when I found myself seated next to a Trump supporter at a dinner during a conference we were both attending. I decided I wanted to understand why he was voting for Trump. I asked some questions. It came down to this. “I am voting for Trump because I am a moral person.”

Suddenly, I was so sputteringly angry I could hardly speak. He assumes I’m immoral because I’m voting for Hillary?? What a dumbass!! I recalled my promise to myself to stop doing that. I tried to take a deep breath.

“Can we just assume that everyone sitting at this table is a moral person? Do you really assume that I am immoral because I am voting for Hillary?”

It was pretty clear he did. Rather than defend my honor, I succumbed to an overwhelming lethargy, left dinner early and abruptly, crawled into bed–and tossed and turned all night, unable to sleep.

Laziness

Once again, I’d retreated to my corner. But, my corner was no longer a retreat, because we are after all one nation, indivisible. It occurred to me that part of my reluctance to challenge a different point of view was pure laziness on both our parts. It was so much easier for him to dismiss me as immoral, and for me to dismiss of him as a dumbass, than to actually talk. I couldn’t find the energy to understand him, or to explain myself. He and I had nothing to fear from one another, so this wasn’t about fear. It was about habits born of earlier fears. And a certain laziness, a lack of energy to overcome those fears. We were just too tired to engage properly. But around three in the morning I realized that if we didn’t connect, we were reinforcing rather than mending the dangerous political climate that has been waking me up nights.

The Path Forward?

“Only Connect”

                     –E.M. Forster

Happily, I bumped into my dinner companion the next morning. I’d just given a talk on Radical Candor–the ability to show you care personally about people even as you challenge them directly. I apologized for my abrupt departure the evening before, confessing I’d fallen into obnoxious aggression–what I call it when one person challenges another but doesn’t care about them at a human level. He also confessed he feared he’d caused offense. He told me a story about himself. I shared a story about myself. We talked about a specific policy, and found there was more common ground than our conversation the night before had led us to believe. We came out on different sides of the issue, but I understood his a bit better, and he mine. He still voted for Trump, I still voted for Hillary. But my thinking about why is a little clearer, and his thinking about why is a little clearer. And it was possible for us to have a civil discourse.

No matter who wins the election tonight, if we all go find somebody who voted differently, and find a point of connection, a way to show some common human decency, or even a way to show that person you care about them at a personal level, then the healing can begin.

But love is not all we need. We still need to challenge each other. To disagree, to debate. Not a debate to “win,” but a debate to help each other get to the best answer.

It’s often said that politics divides. But NOT talking about politics with those who disagree with us is part of what’s gotten us to the awful place that was this election. Not talking politics has led us to the brink of something terrible.

So let’s talk. Let’s not be afraid to disagree with each other. Swallowing our disagreement and retreating to our corners has gotten us to a scary place. I’m going to try to connect as I disagree. I’m going to do a better job remembering there’s a real live human being on the other side of the argument.

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