How to be now: Listening

Yesterday, I wrote a long post about “how to be now,” about how my fear and anger were toggling back and forth and making me kind of useless in the face of Everything that is Happening.  I mentioned different kinds of things I have learned in my realm of communication theory/practice that I’m pondering as different ways to think about, frame and respond to the world we find ourselves in now.

One of the most important aspects of how we got to this place we’re in right now is because of a polarized discourse in the US that’s been deepening since the 1980s, between two identities that basically correspond to “conservative” and “liberal.”


To boil a 300 page dissertation down to a few paragraphs, when you have the kind of intractable positions we are seeing right now, it’s not about facts or anything rational, but about identity.  The two political parties in the US are not possible menus of policies people choose at election time, but maps to “the kind of person I am.”  In places like Canada or the UK, where we have more than two parties, we affiliate with a rough part of the political spectrum, but we are more likely to flit between parties as individual candidates please us or piss us off, or to choose a marginal party as a protest.

In the US, there’s almost no such movement.  Political affiliation is for most people an expression of a deep-rooted cultural and personal identity.  You can’t counter identity with what most people call “logic” (though from a theoretical point of view, there is an inherent coherence and internal logic to it, as George Lakoff describes very well).  In terms of the theory I use, identity in this situation is almost always the “highest context,” which means that every fact that comes up is interpreted not in a sort of “objective reality” but against the logic of “does this affirm my sense of affiliation with this identity?”

A great example of this was the number of people who identify as conservative who said they saw more people in a picture of the crowd from Trump’s inauguration than from Obama’s, even in the face of clear evidence that there was a ton of empty space in the Trump pic.  (Liberals do this too — it’s not unique to conservatives). The researchers in this studied explained it as “some Trump supporters in our sample decided to use this question to express their support for Trump rather than to answer the survey question factually.”  In communication theory terms, we would say that they make meaning of what they see against their “interpretive repertoire” that holds that defending their position — and sense of self —  is a more important context  than “objective assessment.”

We try to persuade each other of our points of view by crafting solid arguments, trying to make our points incontrovertible.  Like half the people I know, I’m continually sharing thoughtful pieces of writing, making connections, trying to unpack the implications of what the Trump administration might be *really* doing by continually moving the line, pushing hard and then pulling back just enough that we go, “oh, I guess that’s not so bad then.”  Pointing out actual lies, and the fallacies.  I could write a thesis today packed with solid political analysis of why what is happening is morally wrong, wrong-headed and dangerous.

And it wouldn’t matter. That’s the problem. I have people in my FB feed who voted for Trump, who will shout right back with their arguments about the need for national security, for economic strength, that this is now the conservative turn in power and I lost and need to accept that. (I think they are very wrong, but they don’t, and that’s what matters.  My sense of wrongness doesn’t change their views). My responses will be filtered through their interpretive lenses, not heard as remotely valid.

So what do we do, in this standoff?

One of the practices I have drawn from in conflictual situations over the past 15 years came from a group in Boston called the Public Conversations Project (PCP).  In the 80s and 90s, the anti-abortion and pro-choice discourses had become completely intractable, and there was a huge amount of violence against the clinics.  The people in the PCP recognized that there was no way that either “side” was going to change their political views, but had a hunch that they might be able to tone down the rhetoric if they could get them to the point of seeing each other as human beings, and in that, try to get them to acknowledge just a little bit of grey in their own perspectives.  This is a great short video about the project.


The most important thing to note about this project is that it didn’t frame “both sides” as “equally right” or “equally wrong” — it was the anti-choice side that was clearly being violent. But the responses of the pro-choice side were also keeping both sides locked in the way of seeing each other that reinforced the violence.  That is the key to successful dialogic communication:  recognizing that even if you are “right,” something you are doing is keeping you both from moving forward.  You are both co-creating reality.

This is the hardest thing to let in:  that even in our moral groundedness, in our genuine deep-rooted recognition and conviction that the other side is causing harm (literally blowing up abortion clinics or enacting racist policies), we can’t disrupt other people’s equally deep convictions (wrong though they may be) by arguing with them.  We have to somehow find a way to disrupt the pattern of interaction so that something new might emerge.

Dialogic space is about letting in, just a little bit, an understanding of why other people care so deeply and so differently from you about the same things.  You’re not going to get very far looking for “grey areas” in discussing the travel ban itself, but you could get somewhere in trying to hear the fear lurking behind a desire for “greater national security.”  And conversely, I would hope that a fierce Trump supporter would be able to hear the human desire to be able to protect vulnerable people, the fear of what happens when you start to shut people out.

Dialogic practices are a very tough sell right now.  Any suggestion of “listening to the other side” prompts immediate arguments that “I can assure you that the other side isn’t interested in hearing from you” or that and that wishy washy liberals have tried too hard to understand tyrants who just bulldoze us right over.  I’m not suggesting that it would be helpful to create a drumming circle with Trump, Bannon and his cronies — they are not available for dialogic engagement (polite way of saying, beyond the pale). But some of their supporters are.  And there’s also absolutely no sustainable, generative place whatsoever for people in the US to go together if they can’t get out of the polarized discourse where each other’s perspective is immediately shouted down.

Right now, we are in a place where we mostly live in social/media echo chambers that reinforce our own interpretive repertoires, where fake news proliferates, and satire and parody are indistinguishable from real news (did Jimmy Carter really point out that he had to give up his peanut farm when he became president, or was it The Onion?  Both are equally possible). We’re not going to get to dialogic communication on twitter or reddit. But somewhere, we have to find a way to hear and honour the fear, the hope, the humanness behind each “side” — among the ordinary people who elected this administration because they hoped for something.  Somewhere in their, there is a match to “our” side’s hope for care (which Lakoff articulates beautifully here). Because that’s the only way we can hope to make something different.






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