April 27, 2017

A Different Way To Think About Politics?


Would you like to start a fight, or at least a heated discussion? Would you like to anger half the people in a crowd while mollifying the other 50%? Then talk about politics. Along with religion, there is no way to trigger emotion and passion faster than this subject. 

Applying the usual definition, politics are "the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power." Today, in our society, politics is about the conflict,  staking out turf and defending it to the verbal death, or something even more literally. It is usually loaded with sarcasm, fixed belief systems, and distortion of the opposition's position.

Can I suggest a different way to think about politics? Can I offer an alternative that allows us to engage instead of enrage? Can I propose a way forward that may have more positive results?


Yes? Then, please think of the subject of politics at its most fundamental level: human beings trying to live together in peace and prosperity. Remove all the fancy language and organizational double-speak, and politics is about accomplishing shared goals. It is about success as a species. 

The origin of the word is from the Greek, polis, which means community. What is community?  That is a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social and economic standards.

So, at its core, politics is nothing more than a shared experience. Using that definition, this hot button word becomes all-inclusive instead of mutually exclusive. It means those of us who live within the boundary of this nation share basic, common goals.

What gets us into trouble is when we begin to stack layers of emotion and personal bias on that simple explanation. We look to emphasize our differences, not our similarities. We see ourselves as aggrieved, not connected. We do not accept that we could possibly share similar goals with those on the other side of the aisle.

My belief system assures me we are flawed creatures who sin and play to our worst instincts on a frequent basis. But, that belief system also tells me that I should strive for a better way. I should rebel against my baser instincts, of which our current view of politics is an excellent example.

So,what is to be done? I can think of three steps I can take, and maybe you can be right there with me. Also, please add something that I may have overlooked.

1). As much as it may go against my nature, accept that the majority of the political opposition really wants the same thing I do, they are just going about it differently. As much as it may feel as though they are dead wrong, harmful, or seriously misguided, accept that their motivation is not to do the devil's work. This will allow me to see them as fellow human beings, not creatures bent on destruction.

2). Do not become so fixed in my beliefs that I can't adjust and modify as needed. Do a quick review of American history over the past 241 years for a reminder of how things change on a regular basis. What I think is absolutely correct today may prove to be completely wrong if I live long enough.

3). Interact with people who aren't just like me. You never learn much staring at a mirror. As uncomfortable as it may be, I shouldn't isolate myself from others who hold different political views. Be an advocate for what I believe and explain why respectfully and with passion. Listen to any response. If it is filled with anger and spite, don't respond in kind. Thank the person for listening and walk away. My goal is to plant a seed, not wait for a tree to grow.

I am not naive. I know there will always be people in politics who have little or no moral center. They are greedy and self-serving. They may even be criminal in action and intent. Every effort to play to their better nature will fail because they don't possess one. We need to keep the spotlight on those people, call them out, vote them out, impede the damage they can do.

But, for the vast majority who truly believe what they are doing is for everyone's good, we will accomplish nothing by constantly attacking and denigrating those who see things differently. 

Personally, this post is needed reading for me. I spend too much time obsessing over things that I disagree with, give a fist pump when something political I don't like fails or goes wrong, and hope for the failure of policies I believe to be dangerous or counterproductive. Yet, I rarely put myself in the position of trying to understand the other point of view. I am too much of the mirror-gazer I mentioned above.

Seriously, I have no idea what your reaction will be to this post. Am I kidding myself? Are things so seriously off at this point in our nation that I should be marching in the streets? Or, can more be done by understanding a point of view I don't believe is right, and reacting as if that other person has as much value as I, even if I may not get that same respect in return? Can I help things by participating and interacting rather than just rooting for failure?

Help.



25 comments:

  1. I have given up friends over politics, not because of beliefs, but because of their lack of boundaries. I can tolerate different viewpoints, but not the denigrating of others. For some reason, this last election has brought out the worst in everyone.

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    1. I think social media has opened the floodgates on uncivil behavior. It now seems quite acceptable to call into question another person's intelligence, morals, and basic humanity when there is a disagreement. That is a major step backwards, I'm afraid.

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  2. Bob, Thanks for this important and timely post.

    Unfortunately, I have become pessimistic about our current state. As I have said before, we are the most entertained, least informed developed country in the world--a nation of "notions" rather than knowledge. Civil discourse requires some degree of reflective thought and critical thinking and that, in turn requires some investment in time. People are exhausted by their frenzied, stressful lives and thus have little time to truly educate themselves on the issues at hand. So it is more likely that you will flop down in front of the TV to catch some entertainment, rather than watch the "News Hour (or fill in the blank) or a science documentary. My experience has been that if you are not informed about an issue, then in debate your only option is an emotional response based on what you "feel" rather than what you know--and the adrenalin rush that comes with an emotional debate becomes addicting. As a result we have: Cable News. Political debate becomes a sporting event rather than an intellectual exercise. And technology and the internet--which offers unprecedented opportunity for acquisition of knowledge--also can become a magnifier for misinformation and ignorance.

    I am increasingly turning to the literature in social psychology to explain our current circumstance, and I am gaining some insight. Human nature has not changed much (if at all) over the millennia. We often seem to be just rats with bigger brains. What has changed is technology (our tools) which has given us an unprecedented ability to foster diverse communication and enlarge our world.... orthe ability to isolate ourselves into exclusive "silos"-- groups of the like-minded and never have our beliefs tested.

    I rode on our local bus system the other day for a short trip and I was astounded that everyone on the bus (except the driver, thank goodness) had their face buried in their phones or had headphones on listening to music (or both). There was not a single conversation occurring between passengers on that bus. I think that is symbolic as to where we are as a society. It makes me sad.

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    1. Thanks for your excellent overview and comment. I agree completely with you. The more technology is available the less we seem to interact with each other, or the more we draw lines in the sand daring others to cross it.

      There is a school bus stop at the end of our street for junior high kids. Probably 15 gather each morning waiting to be picked up. All 15 are staring at their phones, completely oblivious to the people standing right next to them. It is depressing to see.

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  3. If I were still living in NY I would probably join my many friends who claim they will never be friendly with somebody who voted for him, etc etc. But I live in the South. And I see how the "recovery" passed so many people by. Good people. Others have different beliefs than I do. But I know that some of them have foster children, sometimes many, do much relief work and other good things. I accept them and hope I learn from them as I hope they accept and learn from me. Still think I'm right about certain things.

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    1. Thinking you're right but allowing another to have a differing opinion is the point of this post. As you note, doing good things for other people or making tough choices can be accomplished by anyone. Their political beliefs aren't necessarily relevant.

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  4. Dare I say that I've felt this way for the past 8 years? Now I'm much more optimistic about our great country's future.
    So, there really are people in our country that see the other side of the coin.
    But, I absolutely hate arguing politics and can't tolerate the barrage of negative news we hear...no matter which side you're on.

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    1. Thank you, Sue, for expressing your opinion. I doubt there is a reader of this blog who wouldn't agree with you that the barrage of negativity does none of us any good.

      Our political system is such that in 4 years we can vote for a change, or a continuation. In the meantime, open our eyes and ears while keeping our mouth closed, until we can respectfully share our thoughts with others.

      Push for what we believe, fight against what we think are injustices and bone-headed plans, but respect those who think differently. Tough to do, I know.

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    2. I agree wth you, Sue. Thanks for stating it so succinctly.

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  5. It's no secret, to anyone who even vaguely knows me, where I stand. I have to say, one thing that keeps me firmly in my beliefs about what I see as unfair in our current situation is how this administration continues to take advantage of their base. Feeding them lies and using them while doing the polar opposite of what those folks need. The swamp has taken over and the little guy/gal is going to pay the price for a long time to come. It is mean and unethical but, it is happening. I can't support what I can't respect.
    b

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    1. I want to be sure my post is clear about its intent: the type of behavior you are mentioning revolts me. It is immoral, unethical, and in the long term, counter-productive to publically declare a series of principals, make promises, and declare things will unfold in a certain way only to drop or reverse them once elected. It is mean to tilt the playing field to benefit one group of people over another.

      The people who believe what was said and supported those positions with their votes did so out of a firm conviction that the changes were needed. That is absolutely within their rights. I disagree with their conclusions but can also understand disillusionment and disappointment from some at the rapid turn of events.

      Should I gloat and say, "I told you so?" That won't accomplish much. But, if I can understand the bottom line concerns they have and react to those, maybe we can communicate.





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  6. I find it interesting how some people that were in seventh heaven over the last eight years, when half the country was anything but, somehow believe that we have fallen apart as a nation in only three months. Do they realize, certainly based on recent polls of the voters, that the only thing that changed is the roles have been switched? Probably the biggest thing that caused the current situation is that many felt the prior administration ignored their views completely, and embarked on an agenda radically different than what they were comfortable with. I guess they would say to those complaining now to look in the mirror for what caused the problem.

    I am not condoning people being uncivil but rather trying to show the old adage of "two sides to the story" certainly rings true today.

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    1. Three months? Heck, people felt the world had fallen apart in November. I think Sue was rather brave. I rarely peak my head out. Being called an ignorant sheep (or racist or sexist or ....) is not my favorite thing.
      Took the grands to see Jefferson's and Madison's houses last week. These were young men, at one time, who wrote things so radical as the Declaration and Constitution. They both became Presidents under Dolly Madison's tutelage. Both houses were known to have very loud and long civil debates about everything under the sun. Madison was soft spoken but, spent his last few years in a bed next to the dining room. He had a runner yell in things he wanted to add to the conversation. Civil discourse.

      BTW- my household is extremely well educated and traveled. No one is leading us astray, anywhere. I know I am not welcome at Barbara's site. At least you are open to the idea of listening.

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    2. Chuck and Janette,

      The two sides to the story is the reason for the post. I know people who were ready to board a plane for anywhere after the November election, and others who felt a great sense of relief. I contend that both camps have reasons their beliefs are legitimate for their feelings.

      I may disagree quite strongly with one side's viewpoint (and I do), but I hope I can a) give them respect as someone who cares as deeply as I do about our future and b) engage in a civil dialogue over our points of disagreement.

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  7. Bob, In a coincidence of timing, I just put up a post on my blog about my recent experience participating in my rural town's annual Town Meeting, where the citizens come together to discuss and decide on the laws and regulations that govern them (and on the town budget). I was impressed by the thoughtfulness and civility of the discussion and the respectful way in which people disagreed with one another. It renewed my faith in the possibilities of politics (and also, I think, adds support to the hypothesis that face-to-face discussions are more likely than electronic discussions to promote civility). -Jean

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    1. Thanks for adding your experience, Jean. While not always true (think back to some of the violent confrontations during the political campaigns), face-to-face conversations have much more potential for civil exchanges than on social media or over the Internet.

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  8. Finally a voice of reason. Excellent post, Bob. We could solve so many problems if we could get past the harsh rhetoric and screaming in the streets. Both "sides" have something to offer. Trump was probably the least qualified both in experience and temperament than any other president when he took office. But I see signs that he is learning on the job. He seems more willing to listen and compromise, which accounts for some reversals. That is a good thing so I have some hope. If Democrats and Republicans (both citizens and elected officials) would simply participate in a positive way we might be able to find solutions that everyone could accept. When you get out of your mental rut there are all kinds of possibilities. Four years is too long to wait and we could end up with the same situation in reverse, accomplishing nothing. Of course the media will do all they can to stoke the fires. That is their bread and butter and our biggest obstacle.

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    1. One of the problems is that most of the media has staked out a position that appeals to a particular constituency, and thus generates ratings from a slice of the whole. There is no effort to be balanced, only to "stoke the fires" as you say.

      I think back to the 1960s and 1970s when the violent clashes between all sorts of different groups produced real change in our society, and led to the productive and mostly peaceful 1980s. Is that type of upheaval what we are going through now? Will we emerge with some major issues resolved? I hope so.

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  9. As Tara Brach said, "The world is divided into people who think they are right...." Changing people's minds and hearts to see things your way will never happen through force, judgment, anger, violence. We change others and ourselves when we are open to connection to someone else, when we reach across the chasm of fear to shake hands, when we listen, really listen, when we seek common ground.

    As they say, insanity is doing the same thing over and over, thinking you will get a different result. We continue to increase polarization by thinking that if we yell louder and get angrier, that somehow the "other" side will magically see things our way and all will be well.

    Things will change when we follow your advice, and break out of our habitual adversarial pattern.

    PS about your response to the preceding comment. You said that change resulted from violent clashes in the 60s and 70s. Did the change result from the violence, or from people watching nonviolent protesters getting attacked with dogs and fire hoses, from watching a little six year old girl being escorted to school by federal marshals through crowds of raging, screaming adults, from a woman being arrested for sitting on the bus?

    What made a bigger impression after the travel ban--people rioting and destroying property or attorneys standing quietly in airports holding signs offering free legal help to immigrants?

    The divide we see now is not new, but its dramatic and violent manifestation at the surface is new. If it prompts people to take real steps to change, as you have outlined in your wisdom, then we will end up better than before, as we did after the upheaval then, not because of the violence but because of our desire to end it.

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    1. I don't know if our involvement in the Vietnam War would have ended the way it did without the massive protests, the killing at Kent State, and the protests, both violent and non-violent. The civil rights protestors attacked by dogs was violent, it just came from the establishment side, but it was still part of the violent clashes of that time.

      I get your point, though, and obviously agree it with it. Non-violent protests, marches, boycotts, and ultimately the voting booth are the better choices, albeit usually frustratingly slow. Today does that wisdom still hold true? I hope so but it is being sorely tested.

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    2. I see your point, too. It's a tough call, but as you observed, the tide usually shifted against those perpetrating the violence. So if nonviolent protesters were attacked, the sympathy veered towards the protesters. Violent protesters might have been expressing justified anger, but that tactic rarely achieved the genuine change of heart that they sought. And we've all seen that a change in the law doesn't always mean a change in heart. THAT comes from following your advice and reaching out rather than shutting out.

      Good conversation, and one that is so critical for us all to be having right now.

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  10. This past Saturday night, the president was one mile from my condo (as the crow flies). Usually when he comes to our area he visits Hershey where I was attending a convention, so I was able to stay out of the horrific traffic backups. I cannot fail to mention his stands on making fun of folks with disabilities and bragging about his ability to grab women's crotches. My brother has a grandson with Downs Syndrome and a nephew with a brain tumor who is unable to do anything and yet he still voted for Trump. My brother is a good and caring man and when I shared with him the 3 times that I was "grabbed" on a college campus, shopping in a Super Market on Christmas Eve, and by a friend's father in the car after leaving the hospital where we visited his wife, he still voted for this ego centered man.

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    1. I will let this comment stand as is. You are describing a situation that baffles many, but, 8 years ago I imagine the same confusion would have surrounded the pick of President Obama by many. A choice seems to often come from our emotional side rather than our rational side.

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  11. Nice (and clever) post, Bob. However, or as you expected, it has invited exactly the type of responses that your post is encouraging us to avoid. I suggest that many of the replies enhance your point that we have a very difficult time controlling our emotions and removing our personal judgement/characterization of the persons/parties that are our "opposites." When this occurs, as you have suggested, positive interaction with our "opposites" is nearly impossible.

    I am trying to accept that my "opposites" hold beliefs that are different from mine but are meaningful to them...trying to accept that polar opposites exist in nearly all thoughts, actions and feelings. I am trying to expect that from these dichotomies a balance/center-point will be achieved and that this managing of the tensions of opposites is what defines us as civil persons and "communities." To me, it does not matter if it was the violence or the non-violence...it was the end result of the managing of these opposite tensions. It is not the campaign "lies" or the legislative foot dragging, it is the result (compromises) that evolve because of them. I need to accept that both sides of the argument have flawed elements but that if we manage the tension of the opposite arguments than we will attain a jumping-off point where we can improve our lot. I accept that I may be demonstrating flawed thinking, herein.

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    1. I appreciate your thoughtful response. Yes, there are comments above that prove this is a tough subject for many, though I only had to delete one for being over the line. It is important, I think, to differentiate between the person who holds certain beliefs and the particular politician who claims to represent them. As all of us know from experience, what is said on the campaign trail doesn't often translate to the reality of holding office. You do a nice job of summarizing how we can accept that dichotomy but use what we have to work with to move forward.

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