Here Are 3 Ways To Foster Healthy Political Discourse

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Our nation needs healing. Mending our sharp divides requires dialogue, connection, and understanding if we are to unify our nation again. Donald Trump’s election has ignited important conversations and increasing numbers of people are reflecting on where we went wrong. Did we ignore hurting people in our midst? Have we not been listening?

We need to engage with the other side, but too often, the conversation derails. Things get ugly. Verbal shots are fired. What I’ve learned from these conversations is even more alarming than I feared: Abuse is rampant in our society. Political dialogue has become toxic on both sides of the aisle. Best-case scenario, Americans have never learned the difference between abusive and respectful debate. Worst-case scenario, we are a nation rife with bullies and trolls.

At its core, malicious dialogue seeks power and control over reciprocal listening and understanding. Everyone is guilty of it at times, especially when our core values are threatened. Here are tools to recognize abusive communication and foster productive discourse.

Abusive Tactic 1: Play the Victim

Complaint: “I’m upset with you. You did something hurtful.”

Abusive response: “Stop attacking me! How could you do that to me?”

Example from a real discussion:

Me: “Trump supports white supremacists, and white supremacists back Trump. You do not support this, do you?”

Trump voter: “I’m not perfect, but I thought my character spoke for itself. I can’t believe you would accuse me of such a thing. I will no longer discuss politics with you.”

This is an age-old strategy used by abusers everywhere. It’s very effective, especially with caring, empathetic people (who are more likely to be abused). The perpetrator has multiple goals: to appear so distraught that you go easy on them, to make you feel ashamed and reduce your self-esteem (“Well geez, maybe I am a mean person”), to make your question your thought process (“Do I really have a right to be upset about this? I don’t know anymore”), and to deflect responsibility.

Remember, an abuser will never sincerely admit wrongdoing. Doing so requires sacrificing their pride and accepting your perspective, both of which they views as threats of annihilation.

Abusive Tactic 2: Defensiveness and Counterattack

Complaint: “I’m upset with you. You did something hurtful.”

Malignant response: “I didn’t really hurt you! You hurt me!”

Example from a real discussion:

Me: “All I want is for Trump supporters to say, ‘You know what, a lot of things Trump has said and done really are terrible. I vow to hold him accountable too and not normalize this stuff.’”

Trump supporter: “You want an apology from Trump voters. We want an apology for [Obama] systematically and intentionally destroying men’s livelihoods in coal country.”

This strategy is a zero-sum game that aims to equalize all wrongdoing. The message  —  that you are just as bad as they are because you’ve made mistakes too  —  has similar goals as No. 1. Before you know it, you’ll be apologizing to them, while so confused that you’ll just want to end the conversation and make everything okay again. After all, who has the authority to argue a moral hierarchy? Maybe you are both screwed-up people.

Deep down, something inside you will say, “No, this doesn’t feel equal. I feel like what they’re doing is worse.” You’ll try to argue why they’re worse, but their refusal to accept your argument coupled with their relentless counterattack will make your words seem weak and meaningless. You’ll start to question your feelings. After all, they’re just feelings, and they have feelings too. Plus, they seem so sure, and you’re not so sure anymore.

This tactic is a powerful one aimed at psychological control. An abuser will never say, “You make a good point. What you feel is important, and if you feel that way, I need to take a hard look at myself.” They will never take your words at face value. They will attempt to usurp your narrative with their own, to replace your feelings with theirs. Sophisticated abusers do so subtly, with thoughtful and convincing arguments. Unsophisticated ones use simple aggression and counterattack. If they can make their victims doubt their instincts, but trust theirs, then they have total control.

Abusive Tactic 3: Threats, Insults, Degradation

Example from a real discussion:

I recently objected to an article “skewering” Cory Booker over one of his recent votes. “We have to be careful not to get so dogmatic in our liberal agenda that we sacrifice more moderate thinkers,” I commented. “If we cut people off over one issue, we only hurt ourselves.” The author replied, “You’ve been abused for far too long if you think you have to put up with this crap, Robin. This is just basic politics  —  represent your people.”

See what they did there? Instead of considering my point as a valid one, they dismissed me as someone who has “been abused for far too long.” They suggested that I must be psychologically damaged to have an opinion different from theirs. They had to degrade me in the process of disagreeing with me.

What to Do Instead

Here are some practical strategies to make public discourse more productive and respectful:

1. Find The Truth Inside the Racket

This approach requires an incredible amount of patience and courage. But inside of many hurtful conversations lie real, important truths. Be the first to offer an olive branch and sacrifice your pride. Saying things like, “I agree with this point you made…” “I can see what you mean here…” or “I think what you’re trying to say is…” can go miles in bridging the divide. Everyone makes mistakes in their communication, but their points still deserve to be heard. Many people who use abusive language have learned it from others, but might change their tune if you do too. Healthy people will soften immediately if you find things to validate in their thought process. Often, they will then be ready to extend the same grace to you, and hear what you have to say.

2. Firmly and Respectfully Repeat Your Points

If the conversation derails and the other person attempts to dismiss, distract, or shift blame, firmly bring attention back to your original points. This is called the “broken record” approach. Don’t let them ignore what you have to say or replace it with their own thoughts and feelings. With enough repetition, you will eventually make headway with normal people.

If the other person never addresses or validates your points, then your repetition will serve as a mirror. At the very least, you will lay bare their avoidance techniques, and your perseverance will demonstrate that you will not back down. Point out any abusive strategies you see. “You still haven’t addressed my point.” “You’re trying to shift blame now.” “You’re minimizing how bad this is.” “You’re still refusing to respect my opinion.” “You’re ignoring facts.” Let them know you won’t let them hijack the truth.

This requires immense amounts of self-validation. You must trust yourself and believe that you deserve to be heard. Try some deep breathing too.

3. Know When to Quit

I have had conversations in which we made progress. We each made points the other took seriously, and we found areas of common ground. I have also reached, and observed, many impasses from which we will clearly get nowhere. Some people refuse to stop abusing. Some show total disregard for truth. You may understand their perspectives, but they will not reciprocate. You will recognize the tipping point: It’s that moment when your blood boils with frustration, and you’re suddenly ready to throw things out of windows. Don’t do it! Don’t hurt back either. Just walk away. Things will only get ugly, and you will give the other person a reason to dismiss you as unhinged.

As democratic citizens, we are privileged to have the right to engage with each other. Many have fought for this right. We must reach out to each other if we are to have any hope of social change. Some people will retaliate with malice. We can arm ourselves with clear eyes and with tools to fight for civil discourse.

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