Talking Past Anger
Approaching political discussions with charity for the other side is difficult, especially when we think we are on the right side of an argument against evil. We think denying that evil, exposing its ugliness, is enough to make our actions worthwhile. There is, however, a real danger in communicating with anger.
When we talk in a way that respects each other and ourselves, we grow. We exchange ideas and evaluate ourselves. Engaging another person in conversation lets us bring them to see the world as we do. But when we talk past each other, or when we talk in ways that do not engage each other, we cannot make our lives better.
Many on the left are reeling from the election of a man whom they detest. Many have resorted to angry rants and name calling. I understand that impulse. I respect the underlying rejection of values that I too find horrifying. The trouble is not that anger is wrong. The trouble is in the method of its expression.
I wish that calling a spade a spade were enough. I wish that by saying “drug prohibition is racist,” or “immigration restrictions are xenophobic” I could convince everyone to agree and decide to eliminate these policies. But I also understand that angry declarations are never enough. Much of the reason Trump supporters liked a supposed “government outsider” whose unfiltered remarks so horrified the rest of us was that they had been the recipients of untold amounts of elitist sneers. Even though many Trump supporters are unashamed white supremacists, simply calling them racist will never convince them to stop supporting Trump (let alone to abandon their implicit racism). If anything, these accusations, which they find absurd, will only serve to strengthen their resolve.
Consider how you would feel if your ideological opposites started a conversation by calling you names, none of which you agreed applied to you. For a libertarian, this might look like being called a “fascist apologist for the rich.” The conversation would almost surely result in two angry people, both more convinced than ever that the opposite ideology was pure moral corruption and stupidity. No one grew, no one learned, no one experienced the world through new eyes.
Now, imagine your ideological opponent approached you by saying “You seem to believe X, but I believe Y, and I worry that people who believe X are guilty of moral/intellectual error Z. Can you explain X to me?” In this scenario, they may not come to see any value in X, but you have the opportunity to learn both what others think of your views and how to communicate them more convincingly. In this scenario, there is some possibility that you convince your opposite that they should be more like you, and they might convince you to modify your own views in some way.
The way we talk about controversial topics can either vent our anger or make lives better. It cannot do both. In every effort to convince others we may either meet them where they are and sweet talk them into following us down our chain of reasoning, or we may call them names, blame them for problems, and deepen the divide. The latter feels good. I have done a lot of it. Sadly, it does not make the problems we are angry about go away. Swallowing our pride, loving those we “should” hate, and building bridges is the only way we can change minds. If the mountain will not come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain.
So which of these two ways of approaching conversation should we adopt? To me, the choice seems clear, if hard.
Anger drives us to action. Anger makes us want to destroy the evil we see in the world. Anger is often a good, important, even necessary emotion, but we have to direct it. We cannot simply let it rule our actions. Everyone is entitled to their anger, but I intend to use mine to make the world a better place, not to drive my ideological opponents further into their trenches. People are not irredeemable. No one is entirely incapable of learning and changing. If we talk to them like they are, we deserve the hate they return. I plan to talk to people whose opinions I find deplorable with dignity and respect, because the way we talk to each other matters.