Here’s how political conversations seem to unfold online these days; either we agree, and all is well, or, if we disagree, things quickly devolve into – ‘you’re an idiot’ – ‘no, you’re an idiot!’ to ‘okay, now I’m blocking you.’
Not the most refined discourse.
And – here comes the bitter truth – remember all those people you secretly or openly wrote off as dummies during this election cycle? Perhaps, when the other person is not getting your point – it’s not them. It’s YOU.
“If someone is not paying attention to you, the problem is yours, not theirs,” says Arthur Lupia, a political scientist at the University of Michigan. “They are paying attention to something besides you for a reason.”
One reason has to do with the assumptions we make at the beginning of a discussion.
Lupia likes to use an analogy, he grew up in the country, and he knew the woods behind his house like the back of his hand. “There were streams and hills and mud, you knew where to go and what to avoid,” he recalled.
And when he observes people trying their best to convince others of their opinion, he thinks of those woods. He says it’s like trying to lead your friend out of those woods from afar – and you’re yelling instructions.
“Here’s what you should believe, and here’s what you should do, but if you don’t know where your target audience is starting out, you’re giving them instructions they can’t use,” he said. Or even worse, the instructions will lead them to the wrong place. “In the same way if you’re yelling in the woods and telling someone to turn left and take three steps, if you don’t know where your friend is starting out, that person could be walking into a tree or falling into a river if you didn’t know where they started out.”
He says first, we should know where the other person is coming from. And then, we should consider some brain chemistry.
When we’re presented with information that doesn’t sit well with us – maybe it feels threatening to everything we believe – our brain freaks out.
“The reaction is very similar to fight or flight. If the information threatens us, and we see no way to counter it, we run away from it,” said Lupia. So, we end up trying to diminish the information, or its source, so that we can go on and ignore it.
Lupia recently had an interaction with the leader of a major conservative faith group. He told Lupia that he believes climate change is real, but he didn’t know how to talk about this topic with his congregation. “How can I write a sermon about climate change,” he asked Lupia. “I told him I wouldn’t write a sermon about climate change,” said Lupia. Instead, he advised the faith leader to think about the common values of his congregation – among them stewardship of god’s creations. He told him to write a sermon about this topic, and to end it with a statement that this stewardship should include the environment, and climate.
“Don’t lecture on climate change, instead, find your common values – and build from that,” Lupia summarized.
Lupia says during political arguments, it’s important to take a step back and think about the objective at hand. “A lot of people who care about politics want to improve the lives of their families and their entire community. So, think about ‘what can I learn from this moment that helps me be effective?'” said Lupia. “If what you are trying to do is show how smart and awesome you are, it’s hard. If you want to take a moment and build something greater than yourself, you can go and build it.”