Today I turn for inspiration to Daryl Davis, the R&B musician who helped persuade Roger Kelly, Imperial Wizard, to quit the KKK.
“While you are actively learning about someone else you are passively teaching them about yourself. So if you have an adversary, an opponent with a opposing point of view, give that person a platform. Allow them to air that point of view regardless of how extreme it may be. And believe me I’ve heard some things so extreme at these rallies it will cut you to the bone. Give them a platform. You challenge them. But you don’t challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way, chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform.”
Like so many people watching Trump’s press conference yesterday, I woke up this morning with a pit in my stomach. Did the President really defend white supremacists yesterday? How have we elected a man with so little understanding of what is great and what is shameful about our history that he puts Robert E. Lee, defender of slavery which defines the very worst of what we did as a nation, with George Washington, who symbolizes our highest ideals?
Trump’s words are putting my ideals and philosophy to the test. I believe in Radical Candor–challenging others while still caring about them as fellow human beings. Do I really have to care about Donald Trump? Since I don’t know him, I can’t care personally. But is showing common human decency in the face of his bloviating bullshit even desirable?
Yes! One of the most evil, and oldest political tricks in the book is gain power by sowing fear and hatred in the population at large. I’m saddened but not surprised at what Trump said yesterday. What alarms me most is how many ordinary Americans have reacted to it by hating each other. In his book On Human Nature, EO Wilson explains the danger of dividing ourselves into artificial tribes, democrat and republican.
In all periods of life there is an equally powerful urge to dichotomize, to classify other human beings into two artificially sharpened categories. We seem to be able to be fully comfortable only when… humanity can be labeled as members versus non members, kin versus nonkin, friend versus foe. Erik Erikson has written on the proneness of people everywhere to perform pseudospeciation, the reduction of alien societies to the status of inferior species, not fully human, who can be degraded without conscience.
That’s why I am so alarmed when those who find what Trump said abhorrent, as I do, resort to hurling insults and saying that everyone who voted for Trump is evil. The reaction will allow him to gain more power by sowing hatred in our country. Trump’s press conference set off an explosion of “degrading each other without conscience.” When we fight hatred with hatred, when hurl insults at one another without regard for our common humanity, we are risking everything we hold dear.
It doesn’t begin and end with one man, unfortunately. But both of our political parties have contributed to the mess we are in. Michael Porter and Katherine Gehl explain why politics is failing America. The more fear and loathing of the other party there is, the more money each party raises. The more cooperation in congress there is, the more the American people benefit, but the less money each party can raise.
But it’s not just the political parties. It’s all of us. Too many of us, those who agree but also who disagree with Trump, have followed his lead in how we Tweet and how we talk to each other. We “pseudospeciate.” We divide all of America into two groups, and assign all kinds of traits to the other side that justifies our very worst behavior.
This is especially dangerous because our country has broken itself down into super-majorities by region. Even when a supermajority sees itself as committed to civil discourse, if you’re in the minority, you’re likely to feel shouted down by sheer numbers. And in today’s political environment, both the left and the right seem more committed to unmeasured vituperation rather than open dialogue. So you probably don’t just feel shouted down, you probably are, literally, shouted down with rude and painful insults.
In San Francisco-Hayward-Oakland, 76.7% of people voted for Clinton; in Silicon Valley (Sunnyvale, San Jose, Sana Clara), it was 72.9%1. In the Bronx it was 88%, and in Manhattan it was 86%2. In Birmingham, AL 58.6% of people voted for Trump; in Oklahoma city it was 58.5%3; in Staten Island, it was 57%4. In metros with less than 250,000 people Trump won on average 57% of the vote. But major metropolitan areas are not the place to look for a conservative supermajority. It is places like King County, TX (west of Dallas, east of Amarillo) where 91% of people voted for Trump5.
It’s hard to be a minority voice in a supermajority. It is hard to be a conservative in Silicon Valley. And I imagine it was hard to be one of the five people in King County, TX who voted for Clinton. This difficulty is tearing our nation, our companies, our friendships, and our families apart.
Today, try to have a radically candid political conversation–one in which you challenge somebody’s political position but still show you care about that person. Choose a topic you have strong views on, but not one that makes you see red. Choose a person whom you respect and get along with easily. Start by asking why they have the opinion they have on some policy. Listen with the intent to understand. Repeat what they’ve said to you to make sure you understood correctly. Ask more questions. Then ask if they’d like to hear about your point of view. Only if they seem genuine when you proceed should you continue. Explain your position. If the conversation is going reasonably well but you still don’t agree, try switching sides. Ask the other person to take your position, and you take theirs.
Don’t judge the success of the conversation on whether you change the other person’s mind, or change your mind. You just have to be willing hear the issues from the other person’s perspective, and to express your point of view with respect but with unstinting clarity–all the while, not losing sight of the fact that you actually like the person you’re talking to, even if you don’t agree about abortion or healthcare or gun control, even if they don’t share your feelings about what Trump said yesterday.
This conversation going to feel unnatural. Why should you have it?
Because it’s your job. If you are an American citizen, you are a leader. The founding fathers made each and every citizen of this country a boss. It’s the job of all of us–we the people–to choose our executives, legislators, and judges carefully. It’s our ability to hold them accountable for good governance. And it’s our job to elect somebody different if they are failing us. In other words, we hire, hold accountable, and fire the team who governs this nation. That’s a very basic job description of a manager. You might not want to be a manager. But if you vote (or even if you should’ve voted but didn’t), you are one!
If we can’t lead by example–if we can’t discuss the important topics of our time with each other in a civil way–then it’s going to be difficult for us to insist that our elected officials do so. History is as much a bottoms-up process as it is top down. Your words matter.
If we can’t find a way to disagree while still seeing the person we are disagreeing with as a fellow human being, our democracy may fail. Too many people seem to think that in order to challenge effectively, we have to hate. Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to challenge ideas we disagree with, find abhorrent, or even evil, we must not ourselves become evil. To be effective, we must bring our full humanity to bear, and see humanity in those with whom we disagree, as never before.