Thursday, May 21, 2009

Let's agree to disagree

"One of the worst problems in America--not just in America, everywhere--is demonizing. If you disagree with a person, then you think they are a demon. I don't think people realize the cost of hatred; how it not only corrodes the person feeling it but makes the possibility of persuasive conversation with the hated person impossible. Hatred has only one object: hurting the target. I think it is very important to disagree without venomous hatred, without insult. No one changes their view, or even considers a differing view if it is presented as a personal attack."--Paul Ekman, from Emotional Awareness: A Conversation Between the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman, PhD.

This past Mother's Day, my mother went to a brunch at my aunt and uncle's house (I couldn't be with her that Sunday, but saw her the following weekend.) She told me that a woman I had met before, an older woman related to my aunt, was there with her boyfriend. Apparently the topic turned to gay marriage, and this woman (let's call her Bea) was vehemently opposed to the idea and wasn't shy about expressing her disdain. My mother said, "It was a good thing you weren't there." And I thought about that. Usually I steer clear of weighty topics like gay marriage and immigration rights and abortion and organized religion--even politics--unless I know the person I'm talking to feels the same as I do. I also think you should respect people who are older than you. But is silence a form of agreement? And if I were to actually argue with someone whose beliefs diametrically opposed my own, could I keep it civil?

It's like when someone criticizes you or does something that feels like an infringement. Do you retaliate or walk away? I'm sometimes caught by surprise by my own venom. If I feel someone has disrespected me or done something rude, I often get very, very angry, spitting angry. For someone who likes to get along with people, there's a part of me that also wants to slap them at the least provocation. But if I retaliate, or if I argue, isn't that escalating things? And won't that make the situation worse?

In 2004 I marched in a women's right to choose rally on Washington. Bush was in office and women's reproductive rights were being threatened. Because I surround myself with people who share my liberal views, I was taken aback by all the pro-life advocates who lined the streets where we were marching. I held up a sign that an artistically-gifted friend of mine had made for me--a dove with a gag in its beak--meant to represent the global gag rule. It was a kid's drawing compared to the visceral, bloodied, and horrific signs the pro-lifers displayed. At first I recoiled, and even felt hate rising in me for these people. But then I thought--this is what animal rights activists do--show shocking pictures of abused animals--and you support them. These protesters are just trying to get their point across, and a graphic visual may be the only thing that registers with people. Still, I felt angry. In fact, even though I was too much of a coward to say anything, I was secretly pleased to be walking next to a very vocal marcher who shouted down the pro-lifers with absolute ferocity.

But that's the problem, isn't it? For all the times that I seethed at the people storming the gates of Notre Dame when Obama was giving the commencement address, or crossed the street when I saw anti-gay marriage protestors, wasn't I shutting myself off from trying to understand people who happen to have an opposing view? Growing up in the Northeast, I'm so buffeted by liberalism that I have become the very elitist that infuriates the right-leaning.

Now that Obama is in office and trying to make both party sides come together, I've been thinking about how you make change in the world. It's not by being hateful of others because of their differing beliefs. It's about expressing your view, calmly and peacefully, while allowing other people to disagree. What would have been accomplished if I had yelled across the table at Bea about how gays should have the same rights as everyone else? I could have still made my opinion known, while keeping things pleasant between us, therefore not ruining the entire brunch! And I wouldn't be left seething and angry and distant--and ultimately sorry that I had lashed out.

This is why I hate talk shows where liberals and conservatives are pitted against each other like roosters in a cock fight. The only thing that comes out of it is a lot of ruffled feathers and a dead rooster.


Nathan said...

Well, I think the tricky thing is being true to what you believe in, even in the face of someone, or a group of someones shouting at you, name calling, etc. I definitely believe there are times when being silent is the same as supporting those who are shouting and grandstanding. At the same time, there are places where staying silent may be the best option in that situation, especially if speaking might put your life in danger for no good reason.

But what I have found most tricky is that place where someone who disagrees with you is yelling, or name calling, or personal attacking you because of where you stand. It's a fantasy to expect to get out of these kinds of situations without a little bit of a mess occurring and, actually, I'm now more inclined to believe there's some value in being a little messy. People shouting angry, vile things should know that they are hurting others. They should see your upset, even if you manage to stay calm enough to simply state that these kinds things are hurtful. The calm, rational sounding statement of belief, followed by a retreat into silence while others fight it out isn't all that much better than being part of the fighting.

I'm still learning how to do all this myself, but I'm finding that the more authentic I am, including not stuffing upset being a cloak of politeness or a desire to be peaceful, the more possible it is to actually have a dialogue with someone I disagree with. Being authentic is not an excuse to slide into name-calling and hate spewing, but I do see it as a call to wade into the muck of life and stop trying to keep so clean.


sallymandy said...

This is a very relevant topic, about which I have literally spent days and days and probably weeks and months thinking--and a lot more than thinking. It was this topic that led me to the writings of Pema Chodron and TNH.

I grew up in a politically liberal family which has now largely become very outspoken and active in political issues that I tend to agree with--but I do not agree with my family members' methods. There is very much demonizing and hate-spewing even from the "progressive" people I love. In my experience, much more from them than from my more conservative in-laws.

My husband was in the Air Force Reserve, and activated for two years in the Iraq war. It was one of the hardest times in my life, as I tried to steer a middle ground between what he was doing and what my family was saying. I got very interested in philosophies and projects advocating what you're talking about...the nonescalation of interpersonal violence even between people who strongly disagree.

The Christian Science Monitor did an outstanding series of articles and interviews called "Talking to the Enemy" on this subject--it must have been 3-4 years ago now, but probably still available on their website.

thank you for this thoughtful post.

Marilou said...

this is a great post and very relevant. This is something I have found myself having to deal with on a regular basis here in Minnesota as we start an animal welfare coalition. One would think we could all work together towards our shared goal of reducing euthanasia of adoptable animals. I have learned that we must simply remain focused on our vision and we must commit to working together in a positive, collaborative and respectful manner. When strong emotions, viewpoints arise, and when they differ, we have agreed (those of us in the coalition) to focus on the common ground (as small as that might be) and to build on it.

When someone disagrees with us it is our greatest opportunity to learn something. It's not always easy for me, i admit, but when an opposing viewpoint or ideas hits a sensitive nerve in me, I seek to understand first than to be understood.

Thanks for the great post!