Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why do we debate what we believe?

During the course of this election season (which has been more of a year than a season, let’s be honest), I’ve exchanged a lot of emails and had a lot of conversations with people about politics. Some people agree with me, some do not. Some conversations were civil, intellectually stimulating, and engrossing (yes, even some of those with people on the other side of the issues) and others were just plain frustrating. Some people have a grasp on the facts and make it their business to be well-informed whilst others form opinions from sound-bites and rumors. Whether in agreement, disagreement, or even apathy, the one thing I can say for sure is that everyone has been passionate.

A couple of more recent emails, however, have made me think more philosophically about politics and people.

Last week I shared some emails with a friend who is tired of the 24/7 political news cycle and the seemingly non-stop social discourse that accompanies it. In this I’m sure she’s not alone, but in one of her emails to me, that same friend talked about winning or losing arguments between friends of opposing political philosophies.

Hold onto that thought…

Today I received a completely unsolicited political email from an agent from the real estate company I used to work for. The agent wasn’t a friend of mine – in fact she had gone out of her way to be as much of a pain in the ass as she could possibly be to me during my tenure – and so I was a little startled to get any sort of email from her, let alone an email bashing Barack Obama. The email was a conservative take on the principle of “sharing wealth” (a term I have an issue with but I’m using it here for easy identification), taking the concept completely out of context, taking it to a ridiculous extreme and mocking it in that way that people tend to on both sides when they’re trying to rally their ‘base’. (I’m not going to debate what Obama did or did not say here because I doubt I’ll change anyone’s mind at this point in the process, or at all, ever, if they (you?) are right-leaning.)

Email #1 with my friend made me think about winning and losing political debates. I have never, in all the years I have been politically aware, had an argument, debate or whatever you want to call it, that I felt I had walked away from “winning”. In fact, I venture to say that, through no lack of knowledge or persuasive techniques of my own (at least not in my humble opinion), I have never once changed a mind or converted a soul. Unless we are one of the rare few people in this world that can truly inspire people to change their minds (whomever you might personally choose to assign that power to – religious, political, or otherwise), I’m sure most of you can say the same thing of your political conversations. People who agree with you walk away leaving you feeling vindicated and validated, people who disagree walk away leaving you frustrated and misunderstood.

Email #2 made me mad. Aside from the “who the hell is she to send me an email like this after 2 years?” reaction, I was mad because the email took something I do believe in passionately and purposefully mischaracterized it in such a way that was patronizing, demeaning, and offensive. It portrayed my belief as stupid and, by proxy, me as stupid also.

So, today, to borrow the words of SJP herself, I couldn’t help but wonder…why do we debate what we believe, especially when those debates often leave us feeling offended?

I think that it’s because we want to be understood, not because we want to win. Yes, we all, to some extent, kind of harbor the hope that we can somehow outsmart or out-knowledge someone from time-to-time, claiming a victory of sorts. Yet, I defy any one of you to tell me, truly, that you engage in political debates with people who you know don’t and won’t agree with you, because you think you’ll actually change their mind.

But we do it! Even those of us who claim to be apathetic end up debating apathy vs. involvement. Deep down, I think that we debate not because we want to change the other person’s mind about the issues, it’s because we want to change the other person’s mind about US. We want to be understood. We want our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, intellect, opinions, and thereby ourselves, to be validated by the other person. We don’t want to turn a democrat into a republican or a republican into a democrat (although that sure would be a great by-product) but we do want the other person to say “I get it. I get you. I may not agree, but I understand why you feel the way you do.”

So, in this context, what is so maddening about presidential elections – especially ones as charged as this – is when all of those thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and opinions are continually called into question on the tv and the radio, in newspapers and magazines, on signs and bumper stickers, in emails, postcards, and conversations. It’s like a 24-hour, nowhere-to-hide assault for Democrats and Republicans alike on all that we believe to be true and right.

And it’s not as if the other side’s opinion is often framed in such a way that we can just take it onboard and agree to disagree. What made me so mad about that stupid email I got this morning was the fact that it took one thing out of context and took it to such an extreme as to be ridiculous by all accounts. It’s like stereotypes: “Tax and Spend Liberals”. “Bible Belt Conservatives”… they all take a certain belief or set of beliefs and mischaracterize them to such an extent that they no longer truly represent the people they were created to label. It’s all an attempt to oversimplify often complicated, nuanced belief systems and policies, in order to fit into a CNN news-cycle sound-bite and to easily facilitate off-base criticisms that build upon fear, ignorance and prejudice.

This happens on both sides to varying extents in each election and in each case the other side feels unfairly represented, falsely critiqued, and calls “foul” on the opposing candidate(s) and/or the media.

All of THIS is what makes me mad. It’s this kind of uncompassionate, dehumanizing, polarizing rhetoric that gets people all riled up for no reason, shouting things like “Terrorist!” and “Kill Him!” (Note, I tried to find some similarly charged, anti-McCain cries online but could not find them. Not to say they don’t exist, only I don’t have the time to go into full research mode to find them.)

No matter what you think of the opposing candidate, you have to admit that all this gets us nowhere. McCain calls Obama a Tax and Spend Liberal who wants to redistribute your hard earned cash. Obama’s camp says McCain was erratic and impulsive during the financial crisis and wants to rob from the middle-class to give to the CEO of Chevron. None of this tells us anything, quite honestly. Again, it plays on and to existing fears and stereotypes, often taking out of context one line in many, many pages of carefully thought-out positions and policies that have been developed based upon a deeply held set of beliefs. Yes, it riles up the candidate’s base, it gets the other side mad, but all it fuels is tit-for-tat attacks that make us all frustrated and feeling disenfranchised to some extent.

The underlying point I’m trying to make here is that, as much as we want to believe it, as much as we try to stretch and parse words to make it so, the other side is not stupid or ill-advised. (Some people are indeed both those things but I’m not talking about them – they’re beyond my help here). We do ourselves and our ‘opponents’ no favors by exaggerating and patronizing their opinions. I know extremely intelligent and compassionate people who I call friends and who are Republicans/conservatives or at least share in the majority of right-wing policies and values. It would be so much easier to dismiss them as stupid, uncaring, or uninformed but I find that I can’t. I disagree with them PASSIONATELY about so many things and just can’t understand why people I love and respect don’t feel the same way about things that are so evidently ‘true’ and ‘commonsensical’ to me. They often say things that flabberghast me because I just don’t understand how they can be all those good things and yet be so far on the other side of what I believe to be logic in so many ways. I’m sure they feel the same way about me.

So, at the end of the day, I just think we want to be understood and maybe even to understand. To understand how it can be that we can live, love, laugh, and work with people every day, sharing the same everyday topography, heading essentially toward the same goal (a better country to live in) and yet our internal maps lead us to completely different philosophical destinations.

This is already a long post but I had planned on also talking a little bit about what I believe in a personal way and why – what experiences I’ve had in my life or values I’ve had instilled in me that have made me think a certain approach to government and society is ‘right’. But maybe I’ll leave that to a Part Deux.

In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts…


CGBCYouth said...

What are we voting for, really? Because I believe both candnidates and most of the propositions will do some good for our country. However, because of our beliefs, we choose one side or the other to vote for because we believe the things that we value the most will be improved/preserved/amplified. And we all value different things in life.

What am I trying to say? I don't know haha....

Bottomline is, politics, to me, is a relative decision, not absolute. Just because I'm voting for MaCain, doesn't mean I think Palin has the skills to be VP, or that I think Obama is a terrorist (pulease...), and I even share some Democrat values. And I've said this before, I'll say it again: I truly dislike politicians because I think they are all the same. I vote because it's part of my citizen duties, not because I truly believe one is that much better than the other.

e said...

I used to say that the candidates were pretty much the same. Then Bush was president for 8 years, and our country has gone to hell in a handbasket. Candidates are not pretty much the same at all, and for me, I realized that saying htat was a way to avoid conflict of opinions and to take responsibility for being at cause in the matter of how our country goes, no matter who gets elected. So I don't say it anymore, because for me to say is a copout. Please understand, I'm not suggesting it is for you, this is just something I am articulating because you brought up the point of them being pretty much the same.

As for convincing people: I tend to think you can't convince people of anything unless they're open to actually listening to another point of view. I was open to being persuaded by McCain for a while, then he started aiming as low as he could, and pandering to the ultra-conservatives, and adding Palin to the ticket, and he lost me. At that point, nothing he could have said or done would have persuaded me.

Part of what I've been looking at is the character of negative ads. Sadly, McCain's ads have been personally offensive, and petty in nature, more so than Obama's. I don't mind criticism of each other policies, but when you tack on "terrorist" or "socialist" or god forbid "muslim" on to someone to frighten the voters, you are no longer addressing the issues, you're being personal. I don't want a leader who is petty and small and panders to the lowest common fear. I don't. And I'm also, frankly, disappointed that so many people are willing to vote for such a leader. I know that they do because ultimately they agree with McCain's values more than with Obama's, but at what price?

I for one, am not at all tired of the media blitz. Quite the opposite. Bring it on. This is too damn important for me to be focused on my own personal discomfort or boredom. This election is not about me alone, no election is about me alone.

Anywho, just rambling here. Not sure if I even remotely addressed your post, lovey.

e said...

As a follow up, a colleague of mine came into my office to ask me how anyone can vote for Obama - he thinks Obama may actually be the antichrist. I was all, well that's not really an argument, is it? I mean, really? The antichrist? That's the kind of argument our crazy defendants make in court.

I calmly explained why I would be voting for Obama and why I was very disappointed with McCain. He didn't contradict anything I said, but the truth of the matter is that he's afraid Obama will raise taxes and turn the U.S. into a socialist state (whatever that means). So that's in part what people are so rabid about: don't touch their money!

I for one hate taxes and am beside myself with fury every time I get my property tax bill, but my pocketbook is not the most important thing on the planet. And I happen to agree that some folks can stand to cough up a little more of the money they make, and some folks really need to cough up less of the money they make.

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