A few weeks ago, I found a fragile, yet present, sense of peace that had escaped me since the 2016 election cycle.
There I was, sitting across from the licensed professional my insurance company pays to listen to me attempt normal human behavior, when one of my rather long-winded rants was interrupted by said professional. If your instinct is to be outraged by a therapist interrupting their client to impart wisdom (aka shutting them up before their tirade becomes even more inane), then you and I are similarly wired. What is a therapist for but to listen to you be the absolute worst version of yourself for fifty minutes every other Friday?
Picture this, your carefully crafted martyrdom, your badge of moral superiority, your high horse of vast knowledge- all of it is turned on an axis with one simple phrase uttered by someone with a few letters after their name.
This phrase, or nugget of socio/psychological wisdom, came after a particularly impressive complaint about how much better I am than everyone else.
"But if they just educated themselves about these things, they would agree with me!" I said with great exasperation, the weight of the world on my shoulders alone. "I mean, anyone with a working brain could see the problem here. How can ANYONE be supporting this?"
Oh, how heavy the head (and the heart) of the person who thinks they know everything.
I am such a person.
I used to hide it well, usually smiling and nodding with an angelic face of placation. If I couldn't manage that, I'd say nothing at all. Internally, I'd be throwing a tantrum the size of our current president's twitter feed, but I'd keep a bottle on it because I'm an adult with a modicum level of self-control.
However after the election, I found my mouth and my social media presence becoming one long scream of frustration and vilification. Emboldened by my perceived moral superiority and higher intelligence, I rallied with those who felt similarly.
Disillusioned by the many neighbors, friends, and family members that didn't rise to the expectations we created for them at some point in our relationships, we snowflakes/lib-tards voiced our frustration through uncomfortable family dinners and awkward block parties. Waiting for a sign that we'd be able to show-off our intelligence or moral high-ground, we'd sit on the edge of our seats, daring our racist neighbors to say just the right thing to set us off. We'd bait our mothers into arguments about religious freedom, our co-workers into homophobic rants, our brothers into debates concerning affirmative action. We'd have facts ready, memorizing statistics and epic quotes from politicians and world leaders we respected. We believed our self-righteous bravery would see us victorious over our foes.
But when shit hit the fan, when our families and friends were ready to rumble just as self-righteously, we rarely found ourselves in any better position than before we started the argument. No matter how many facts or well-thought out arguments we had, they always had "facts" of their own, which backed up their own arguments. Just recently someone I disagreed with told me, "facts are subjective these days" and they laughed while they said it. As if molding the truth into whatever you want is inherently hilarious.
Of course, when it comes to "facts", Americans on both sides of the aisle have difficulty finding and verifying them. Our society largely teaches children blind obedience, which, in my opinion, has led to this problem of finding and assessing data correctly. People feel completely comfortable with accepting news and "facts" from only one source, creating an echo chamber that damages their ability to think critically. And it's easy to throw out hasty buzz-words like "brainwashing" because that's exactly what's happening to these people.
The propaganda machine that has become a few media outlets has created a tribe mentality among the American people. Tribe mentality, or the idea of submitting yourself to the group think of the "tribe" you've assigned yourself to, is a direct assault against critical thinking. The people who align themselves with certain news outlets or far-right/left affiliations, often find themselves shocked when their leader does something they wouldn't do themselves.This cognitive dissonance can be especially stressful, because now, not only are they burdened by the arguments of those their tribe fundamentally disagrees with, they now have the added discomfort of struggling with themselves.
Studies have shown that questioning long-held beliefs or ideas can be akin to questioning one's very existence, which can be very psychologically damaging for those unaccustomed to such mental gymnastics. It's easier to continue on as you always have, turning a blind-eye to the misdoings of your tribe's leader. It's easier to claim that such misdoings aren't misdoings after all, or are the creation of your foes. And where do you go to get the truth? Back to your tribe.
So, where am I going with this rambling soliloquy about brainwashing, tribe mentality, and the general lack of critical thinking skills in America?
Let me answer that question with another question.
What is the responsibility of the disillusioned?
What good is thinking you know everything if you can't get anyone else to agree with you? (I'd recommend an appointment with my therapist if you too suffer from know-it-all-ism. I'm told there are support groups for this terrible affliction, but as I already know everything the support group would teach me, I'd probably skip it.) Since the 2016 election cycle, how many minds have you changed with your self-righteous fact spouting? How many times has someone who you've offended by challenging their morality replied, "By God! You're right! I'm a terrible human being. I will read all the literature you send me and donate to several charities that will ensure a better future for our children. Thank you for your tireless commitment to knowing everything about this world we live in, and for steering wayward souls like myself in the right direction. I'll be sure to mention your name at the next Nobel Peace Prize committee meeting."
And when we don't get the glowing reception we believe we deserve, we get angry. We yell, we start in on the personal attacks, we invent more problems to argue about. It's the "they aren't immediately agreeing with me and/or walking away from this conversation wanting to know more about what I've told them, so therefore they are grotesque clown monsters intent on murdering all the baby turtles in the world," mentality.
And yet when it comes time to do this again, to go toe-to-toe with those we disagree with (usually the same people), we don't change tactics. We believe, despite ample evidence to the contrary, if we keep whittling away at these people they will change their minds. "Truth will out!" we cry as we charge into family vacations with cocktail swords and peer-reviewed research.
But the truth is, no matter how many facts are brought into an argument, some battles are never won. There doesn't seem to be any winners anymore; there's just lost friendships and broken families.
So, what are we? Helpless? Do we just stand by while children are put in cages and admitted white supremacists rise to public office? Do we just sit across from our racist uncle at Thanksgiving and listen to him spout vitriol as he passes us the mashed-potatoes?
No. We don't just watch from the side-lines as people are fooled into blind obedience. There are things we can do that don't involve ruining relationships or breaking up families.
And here's where my therapist's advice comes into play. The catch-phrase is not really her advice to give, as she didn't come up with it, but she gave it to me so I will always think of her when I'm about to throw down with someone I disagree with.
She said (paraphrasing here because this was two weeks ago and I do have some human weaknesses), "It isn't your responsibility to change their mind. It's your responsibility to listen. And it's only your responsibility to respond when you can respond with ability."
The failure of Hilary Clinton, whether you liked her or not, was largely because she didn't listen. The blue collar working class felt like they were being left behind. They needed reassurance, they needed support, but Clinton's campaign focused on hot social topics and foreign policy. I'm not saying those weren't important focuses, but she completely left out the Willy Lomans of the world.
Research has shown that you can reach people better when you discuss their values, not their positions on policy. Many Americans are overwhelmed by facts and stats being thrown at them (from both sides), the speak of the well-educated elite flying over their heads and leaving them red-faced and feeling left behind. This is not a character flaw. We cannot expect the average American to know the ins and outs of policy. Not because these people are too dim to understand, but because many of them don't want to know. They know what their tribe tells them, and that is all that matters. But if we reach out to their foundation, their over-arching moral compass, we are more likely to have a productive conversation.
When we enter these conversations with the patronizing tone so many of us educated voters tend to slip into, it only hurts our chances of being heard. It's hard, because it goes against our very grain not to open our mouths and ensure that everyone knows how very educated we are, but to bite one's tongue is to keep one's honor. (I just made that shit up. Fight me, Gandhi.)
So yes, respond, but respond with ability. Shouting matches, personal attacks, and shoving facts so far down their throat that it comes out their ass- is not responding with ability. Tension runs deep with family, as past trauma and grievances undoubtedly put more pressure on us to be declared the victor, but it's with our families that we should try the hardest.
Family, whether chosen or born into, is something that shouldn't be tossed away easily. Sometimes saying goodbye to family is the best/safest/healthiest option, but if saying goodbye is simply a way to "win" an argument, have you truly won anything at all?
For me, that's not winning, and even if it were, I don't want to "win" if it means losing people I love. Instead, I plan to keep responding, but I'm committing to responding with ability.
To respond with ability we need to 1.) Mirror or repeat back the statements of the person we're having a dialogue with, to ensure we aren't misinterpreting them. We need to 2.) Validate their statements, and discuss the logic of their point of view. This doesn't mean you're agreeing with them, but simply attempting to understand their perceptions. It's also important to 3.) Empathize with their plight, humanize them and find the feelings behind their beliefs. And finally, after having established a healthy dialogue, you can 4.) SNEAK ATTACK: Smack them in the face. Kidding. After going through steps 1-3, you will find it easier to share your point of view and the other person will be more likely to listen.
So, for example, if your homophobic grandmother makes questionable comments, it's your responsibility to respond with ability.
Not, "Don't say that, Grandma. It's mean," but "What do you mean by that?" or "What led you to that idea?" followed by "What I'm hearing is that you think there is something inherently wrong with being gay. Is that right?" And then "I can see why you would think so, seeing as how you were raised to believe that. It must be very hard for you to see such displays of liberation among the LGBTQ community. I imagine you feel left-behind since your generation did not accept these things so willingly. However, I'm proud of the progress we've made and that these people feel free to be themselves without the threat of violence. It's proof that we've grown as a nation. And I think we should always be loving and accept people for who they are."
Will this mean your grandmother will be marching in the next Pride parade? Probably not. But it does mean you've just had a healthy exchange with her about a sensitive topic, and she's more likely to trust you in the future when the topic comes up again. You haven't shut down the conversation forever.
I think Michelle Obama had it right when she told us "When they go low, we go high," but I don't think she meant that we should just roll over and let bad things happen to good people. We can still fight when we're up on our high-horses. In fact, I think it'll give us a slight advantage.
To quote that other Obama, "We need to move forward, but progress doesn't always follow a straight path."
Progress zigs and zags, goes up and down, but ultimately, we always continue to progress. This tumultuous period of political and social strife will see many zigs and zags, but if we commit to finding the humanity in our neighbors, friends, and family (note: Nazis need not apply), we can continue to maintain the steady progression of moving toward something better. We want to build a better future for our children, and that future also includes the children of those we disagree with.
So continue to fight the good fight, my fellow disillusioned snowflakes, but please do so responsibly.