A very old idea many of our age seem to have forgotten tells us “iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” The classical Western tradition has long upheld this biblical proverb, maintaining the “great conversation” of minds across ages in an explicit effort to pursue truth by drawing out and comparing ideas.
The West has also long been in the process of repudiating that conversation, and the Left’s collapse over Donald Trump’s election is just one manifestation in their own counter-tradition of riots, political correctness, speech policing, and other pressure tactics all employed to silence rather than elevate discourse.
They believe—see Foucault and Derrida, among others—that there is no truth, so there’s no use searching for it through discourse or the scientific method. This means words are merely tools of oppression, not avenues for understanding. So their political project seeks to substitute the oppression they favor for the oppression they do not, thus deliberately substituting reactive emotion for rational thought. Emotions rule, but only the favored emotions and prejudices. In other words, the Left is not only anti-West, but anti-intellectual (although they cloak this anti-intellectualism in obscure language that makes them sound smart).
This is why, around holiday time, progressives write insufferably arrogant articles like “How to Propagandize Your Ignorant, Skeet-Shooting, Fox-Watching Old Fogies at Thanksgiving.” Okay, I made that title up, but here’s one I didn’t: “How to Survive Your Family’s Thanksgiving Arguments,” with debating notes about “Donald Trump,” “ISIS,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “vaccines.” Seriously—debate notes for family conversations! It’s a holiday, people! Maybe we can just go home to win at eating pie and playing Scrabble, not at conversational karate?
It’s become clear that large contingents of Americans accept opposite philosophical premises concerning the meanings of core values such as justice. There are, quite frankly, two ways to resolve such differences: conversation and war. Politics is a blend of both, as it employs both verbal persuasion upon citizens who in consequence consent (or not) to their government, and force that compels them to obey, ultimately through police power.
So let’s talk about some persuasive but not manipulative ways to conduct political conversations with friends and family. The goal is to help listeners be best disposed to hear your best argument that can convince them free and clear, with their whole hearts, and to hold back from manipulative power tactics that leave them feeling pressured into agreement. As we’ve seen with the latest election, pressuring people builds up emotional steam that will have to erupt sometime, and often destructively. That’s why, even though it takes longer, it’s important to convince rather than trick people into joining your side.
We are Americans, after all; our social contract is explicitly based on consent, not force. Same with our conversations and personal relationships. That is the way to function in a free society.
1. Do Start the Conversation
Here’s another headline: “My scary, awkward, hopeful conversation with my dad about why he voted for Trump.” The writer reports her conversation with her father, who admitted he was scared to engage with his own daughter on politics. Maybe it’s because she publicly writes things about him like “Like most white, heterosexual, cisgender men, he has never been oppressed by his country” just sentences after noting he served as a medic in Vietnam. (Chica, have you heard how Vietnam vets were treated by their countrymen? Please Google.)
Despite her youthful arrogance, however, it reads like they had a good conversation because they obviously love each other. To love someone is to respect him or her enough to start a conversation. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to listen. Doing that is itself a small restoration of the American and Western heritage, because it substitutes a search for truth instead of power plays.
Your motives don’t have to be perfectly pure. This young lady appears to have sought a conversation about Donald Trump partly out of a desire to catechize her dad into right-thinking (and provide great material for an evangelistic humblebrag on Vox). Patronizing, and wrong. But give her credit for treating him like a human whose ideas she’d hear out. Likewise, none of us is ever going to be perfect inside and out in this life, so even if you do have some bitterness inside, try to release that negative energy by talking about a topic that’s bugging you while restraining the way you do so out of courtesy for your conversation partners.
2. Don’t Have an Agenda
Conversation about difficult issues is very difficult when you suspect the other person is using the interaction to manipulate you, to use you. That’s a hostile interaction. It may be passive-aggressive instead of overtly aggressive, but it’s still aggressive. Don’t do it. It’s a violation of the other person’s autonomy and individuality. It’s an absolute relationship no-no in all circumstances, and especially toxic in close relationships.
Your conversation partner is a full and equal human being entitled to his own thoughts and interpretations of the truth. You are not better than him because all your friends agree with you about immigration policy. “Correct” thinking does not bestow you with more human dignity or authority than another person. It does not give you license to sneer internally or externally.
If your ideas are truly better than the other person’s, that will become clear as you both exchange ideas—unless the other person is too emotional to engage you likewise. In that case a polite person just sees that an opportunity to investigate truth is not present for this interaction, and charitably tolerates the other person’s emotional immaturity. But do genuinely tell yourself inside that you do want to know the truth, and attempt to approach your interaction with that charitable, objective intent.
3. Put the Other Person First
In high school speech class I read “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” the classic book by mega-salesman turned motivational speaker Dale Carnegie. It is a small book, but he claims it contains his best secrets for getting people to like him and do what he wants. After reading it, I distilled his advice into one word: “Listen.” That seems to be the key to a second word I added in my internal summary: “Relationships.”
We also learned in speech class that “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Cliché or not, it’s still true. To layer it on thickly, recall that this was also Bill Clinton’s greatest asset as a politician. People thought he cared about them. It’s even better, of course, if you actually do care about them, and demonstrate that by considering their needs and desires above your own. This is the essence of character, and of love.
Building relationships is like saving for retirement: It requires sustained deposits over a very long time. You put money in the relationship bank by being there when the other person needs you, in big ways and small. The simplest yet possibly most important way to be there for someone and therefore build a relationship with him is to listen. Don’t just wait your turn to speak; genuinely demonstrate your love and preference for the other person by letting him be the conversation star as often as possible.
This puts money in your relationship bank that will be available for withdrawal during your times of need, which is going to occur when you really want to tell your “Trump-supporting uncle” that you think Trump is a bigot. If you have a good relationship with Uncle Trumpster, he will be more willing both to let you in on why he did this thing and hear you explain why this thing he did wounded you personally. But if there’s no money in that bank, just try a withdrawal. You’ll get the same kind of angry red beeping that indicates you’ve overdrafted.
If you don’t have much money in the family bank because you’ve not been around or even calling home much between holidays, don’t expect to have the relationship capital to plunk down and demand a heart-to-heart about their possibly very personal voting decision this year. Consider making a New Year’s resolution to build up that account so you’ve got money in the bank before the next election.
4. Try Some Humble Pie with that Pumpkin
Ultimately, it is impossible to have any kind of quality relationship with an arrogant person. His ego is too big to admit any space for other people. This is the disposition Americans have come to expect from our ruling class, and it’s a big detriment to social cohesion. The “establishment,” which may be the word of 2016 and 2010’s Tea Party revolt before it, colloquially means “people in charge who won’t listen to me.”
This attitude is a relationship ender. It makes conversation impossible, and thus ultimately it makes civic life impossible. Yet this is what many “deplorable” Americans feel when they read smarmy, hostility-feeding headers like “How to share a table with relatives whose views you abhor,” “We Almost Canceled Thanksgiving Over Donald Trump,” and “Some Uninvited, Some Others Dreading Thanksgiving After Election.” Andy Smarick recently discussed its effects on politics:
When we are certain and self-satisfied, we’re liable to be caustic and incurious and advance prescriptions that are bold, swift, and sweeping. When we’re uncertain and modest, we’re likelier to be charitable and inquisitive and offer reforms that would incrementally build on yesterday’s successes.
I cannot possibly pretend to know how to achieve humility. But I know from painful experience that humbling yourself is the first crucial step towards reconciling with another person. Doing so expresses that you don’t know everything and are willing to learn from your neighbors and fellow Americans, and admit your own wrongs.
Being vulnerable like this does not always pay off in getting you what you want—sometimes others will reject your invitation to forgive—but it is always the right thing to do because it expresses the truth that no man is omniscient and opens the door for others to join you in seeking the good life together. Humility is a non-negotiable prerequisite for reconciliation, whether between an angry nation, an angry family, or both.
5. Work On Your Active Listening Skills
During this election cycle, Rebecca Cusey wrote a fabulous article outlining how to employ active listening skills. This is basically how to communicate to the other person that you hear what they are saying, you are internalizing it, but without communicating also that you endorse their ideas. I’ll quote a bit here:
When the other party says something you would like to refute, instead of refuting, simply repeat back to them what they said in different words. If they say ‘I cannot stand Hillary. She makes me want to throw up,’ repeat back, ‘You really do not like Hillary.’ You are not conceding their point; you are merely actively listening to them.
This simple trick does two things. First, it makes the other person feel heard, which helps them relax and changes the tone of an argument. Secondly, it gives you a bit of time to stall before you respond.
I will add to not overuse this, lest you sound like an irritating parrot. But definitely do reinforce in the other person’s mind that you have heard them out. This also helps do checks of how well you’re understanding their points. If she says “Look, we’ve got so many poor Americans in ghettoes I think we should focus our efforts on fellow citizens before sending money we don’t have to foreigners,” your internal narrative, not to mention your restatement of her point, should not be “Ooh, I knew you hated brown people.”
In short, think about how Jon Stewart would approach these conversations, and do precisely the opposite.
6. Recall the Spirit of Thanksgiving
It is very difficult to give thanks when one believes one deserves all the good things that happen in life and none of the bad. Thanksgiving itself proclaims that we already have much more than we deserve. It is yet another expression of that humility that is so crucial to restoration and unity.
When we give thanks to an almighty God for our many blessings, which is the purpose of this national holiday, we stand united, all together, as one people under another sovereign who rules our lives. In this we find brotherhood and equality of man. Before God, our stature is equal. No man is better than another compared to perfection itself.
We cannot give thanks truly with grudges in our hearts, with envy and complaints about an election our candidate did not win. That’s why it makes sense for people who are so caught up in the temporal insanity that is a presidential election to cancel their Thanksgiving plans altogether. If that one thing is the chief jewel of your life without which you can see nothing good, well, fine, then, go sit outside in the darkness and futilely gnash your teeth a little. See if that’s better than swallowing your pride, coming inside, and gratefully eating a piece of pie delivered perhaps by your political enemy. I wager it’s not.
Looking at all we have to be grateful for teaches us the pettiness of the things that destroy our joy. After all, what is an election compared to eternity—or even just compared to the blessings of family, good friends, a big fat dinner yester-century’s emperors could not have dreamed of eating yet available to every American (thanks to capitalism and soup kitchens), of children running about the yard tossing footballs? Thanksgiving is a season and a character quality that offers us all perspective on our foolishness in giving this election a place it does not deserve, either in our own lives or in human history.
7. You’re Not Off the Hook If You Voted Trump
Winning does not confer on winners an excuse to gloat. That, too, is a breach of courtesy and character. I realize that many Trump voters and those on the Right in general feel targeted by the Left, but two wrongs do not make a right. Most people who voted for Trump did so holding their noses. We all know he also lost the popular vote, which is not exactly a ringing endorsement from voters.
It takes two sides to tangle, and it’s wrong for conservatives to respond to the Left’s false victimization narratives by creating our own, in which we and our tribe are the hapless, pitiable victims of evil progressive oppressors. Self-pity and revenge are not pretty no matter which political persuasion wields them, and vindictiveness in victory will come back to bite anyone on the ass, as nearly every president learns once his party hits his first midterm elections.
If 2016 taught us anything, it is that we are all due for some introspection and repentance. We all need to order our own souls and houses. That can start by learning some lasting lessons from the excessive passions this election has fostered, and committing ourselves anew to wiser habits and dispositions, those necessary to a people who wish to remain truly free.
That can all start with a conversation between two people who treat the other as equals who deserve respect and a fair hearing. That’s not what democracy may look like, but it is what a free republic does, and it is the only way forward.