As the political season is thrust upon us, there are ways we can navigate it mindfully.
This week’s mindless moment comes from a teacher at Waterloo West High School in Iowa. Commenting on Facebook in response to climate activist Greta Thunberg joining a climate strike in Iowa City, he commented, “Don’t have my sniper rifle.” A high school teacher making this type of comment on social media about a 16 year-old girl is mindless - not only in that it could pose a real safety threat to that child - but related to our school shooting epidemic in this country, as well. The teacher was put on administrative leave and the post was removed from Facebook, so we can hope that it wasn’t up long enough to incite any further negative action.
Unfortunately, social media seems to be a breeding ground for mindless behavior and I believe it’s time we start seriously considering the damage it is doing to society. Despite what we read on social media or hear on TV, there is such a thing as a fact. If users continuously post erroneous information, why can’t their accounts be at least temporarily suspended? And why aren’t our laws being enforced online? Yes, we thankfully have free speech. But free speech comes with individual responsibility. In the non-virtual world, if you threaten someone, it’s a punishable crime. If you make false statements about people and it causes them harm, it’s called slander. If you write false statements that cause harm, it’s called libel. Why are we no longer holding people accountable for their actions? And why aren’t the corporations profiting from all of this online activity held accountable as well? As the presidential political race heats up, it might be an excellent time to start holding our politicians accountable, too.
I just read that President Trump declared that Mitt Romney should be impeached. Senators can’t actually be impeached, and in Utah, they can’t even be recalled. But this is a good example of how we’ve taken technology that has the potential to serve us in so many ways, and turned it into a space where we have to question everything we read or hear. News agencies used to investigate stories, perform fact checks, and then report to the public. They even retracted statements if they made a mistake. In a climate of insatiable demand for constant information, many now just report on tweets as if Twitter was a reliable source of information. It is most definitely not.
We’ve always lived in a world with political divide and it’s never been easy to discuss politics with those who disagree with us. Likewise, with religion. It became a social norm to avoid discussing politics or religion in order to maintain peaceful relationships and minimize conflict. Social media, however, provides the perfect platform to say anything and hide behind the anonymity of a user name and a false sense of protection because it’s cyberspace. Not only is there no desire to minimize conflict, there seems to be a strong collective urge to be as mean and vindictive as possible. And now we’re entering that special time of year, which will only make it worse. No, I’m not talking about the holiday season. I’m talking about the political season – a year-long bombardment of political rhetoric that will dominate the news, social media, and perhaps our holiday dinner tables.
Even if we try to avoid discussing the presidential race as a dinner topic, however, there may not be much else we can discuss. In the last few decades, just about everything has become politicized, so we’ve created a situation where we can’t talk to “the other side” about much of anything. The economy, education, religion, sports and world events all have political implications now and are a potential hotbed of discourse. We can’t even go to the oldest go-to in the world – the weather! Now if you even say something like “it sure is hot,” boom, you’re in the middle of an argument about climate change.
Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand."
Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand." We seem to be approaching that scenario now. We cannot as a society progress in any meaningful way if we cannot even discuss the issues in an intelligent, mindful manner. And we’ve got a lot of challenges facing us right now. I have little faith that our government will be able to address our most urgent issues. They are too divided and too focused on protecting their own positions. So that leaves us, the people, to start turning this ship around.
We can begin by wading in gently, but at least forward. The most obvious strategy is to avoid having conversations with people you disagree with. And if you’re not ready to risk a difficult conversation, that’s okay. You can still contribute to improving the great divide by consuming public information in a mindful manner. When you read or hear something offensive from that other side, try to withhold judgment. Be curious. Consider what the motivation is behind whatever you read or heard. Is this person speaking from a place of anger, fear, prejudice, hope, love or to educate?
Before we try to engage in a conversation with the other side, we need to rediscover grey. Many people are looking at the world as if everything is black and white, which it is definitely not. It’s as if every human being has decided what is right and what is wrong, and of course, everyone believes their belief is right. Instead of a conversation, a sharing of ideas, an exchange of information, the most mundane discussion, like “did you hear…” becomes a polarized, verbally violent interaction. So let’s focus on grey to open up a space with the potential to consider that none of us knows everything and we might hear something new in a discussion. Let’s remember that instead of right and wrong, there are simply different perspectives.
Non-judgment is a key component of mindfulness, so we can work on not being judgmental toward the person we’re speaking with. We can be open to hearing their side of the topic and hope to gain more understanding as to how someone can believe in a perspective that feels completely alien to us. We can be open to changing our minds if the other person provides legitimate information that contradicts our opinions. We can be respectful and listen, even if it becomes clear that we are never going to agree on anything.
The holiday season is about to begin. We’ll be sitting next to relatives soon who we may not agree with on much of anything. But instead of avoiding conversing at all, there are things we can do to start opening up channels of communication again.
First, don’t enter into a conversation with the intent of changing someone else’s mind. Again, get curious. Is there anything this person can say that might intrigue you? Cause you to check facts? Consider a different perspective? If not, fine, you can simply listen respectfully and then move on. But you might be surprised.
Second, that respect thing. Even if you strongly disagree with what someone is saying, you can respect the fact that they believe it. They believe they are right just as much as you believe you are. So listen and perhaps contemplate what their experiences have been that would cause them to take this point of view. Instead of arguing the point, ask respectful questions, such as “Can you explain that in more detail, because I’m not quite understanding.”
Don’t pre-judge people. Just because someone has a Trump or Bernie sticker on their car does not mean that you have nothing in common. You may not agree on a candidate, but there could be issues that you both agree need addressing, just from different perspectives. You may also have children at the same school or on the same sports team, you may go to the same church, you might share the same hobbies. Keep an open mind so that you can hear what the other person has to say.
Use “I” statements, not “you” statements. I feel, I believe, my understanding is… this removes the accusatory tone that might creep into the conversation otherwise. This also diminishes potential conflict in that we can’t argue about someone’s feelings. They are what they are.
If or when a conversation becomes too awkward or difficult, try not to run away. I am not referring to anyone being abusive or insulting. In that case, definitely walk away, as they aren’t interested in having a productive conversation. But if the difficulty arises from the topic, as when a person is very passionate about what they’re saying and it creates too much dissonance for us, we can simply say that we respect or acknowledge their passion but that we’ll have to agree to disagree.
We can model calm, mindful behavior, whether online or in person. And with time, perhaps we can return to having civilized conversations that can enlighten us toward solving the real issues we’re facing today.
Have a conflict-free week,