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My Turn: All this fighting? It’s for the birds

  • blue jay



For the Monitor
Tuesday, May 09, 2017

There’s always that kid in school you can’t stand. We all had them. During recess we’d fight and argue and pick on each other. In class, we’d take every opportunity to make fun of each other, to ridicule what the other said. I recall one day when I was going at it with this other kid, both of us doing our damnedest to point out every stupid thing we could think of about the other, even if we had to twist, exaggerate, or even lie to do so. We screamed insults at each other like a couple of blue jays.

One of our teachers came over and put a stop to it. She scowled at us both and said she was sick of listening to us. She gave us each an assignment before she sent us on our separate ways: We were each to think of at least one good thing about the other person, write it down, and hand it in to the teacher the following day. If we didn’t, she would assign detention to both of us, and we could do it then.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a more difficult homework assignment.

But in the end, I finally thought of something. She was a very good artist. I had to grudgingly admit that her drawings of horses were nice.

The next day, we dutifully turned in our papers. The teacher kept us for a few minutes after class and shared with us what each other wrote. My enemy had admitted that I had a big vocabulary and was good at spelling.

We never became fast friends, but that one, forced compliment made a difference in how I felt towards that person. It notched down the negativity.

Now, go back and reread that fist paragraph, and instead of two children in grade school, think of “liberals” and “conservatives.” Doesn’t say much for the maturity level of our discourse does it?

We are so entrenched in our animosity that we cannot think past our rage. We are so determined to shame and defeat the other side that we don’t think it through. We are a nation at war with itself. In the end, all we will accomplish is our own destruction.

Never mind those in power. They have their own agenda, which generally revolves around their own profit and aggrandizement. It is in their best interest to keep the nation at war with itself, divided and disempowered. There’s nothing to be done at that level. No, change comes from the bottom and works its way up. This dreadful situation started with people radicalizing and pulling away from each other, and it isn’t going to stop until we reverse the process.

There is a method we writers use when we are critiquing each other’s work. It’s easily applied to other situations, and successful managers and members of committees use it with great success. Think of something positive to say, and compliment the person before going into what you disagree with or find lacking. Always focus on the project, the actions to be taken, never on the person. In other words, think of something positive before you launch into the negative.

When you come up against someone you disagree with, don’t label them “the enemy” and make every effort to attack them and undermine them. Find something positive. Ask neutral questions about what they advocate until you can find something you agree on. That’s where your focus should be. Make a point of saying, “Yes, you are right about that. I agree with you.”

People are a mix of good and bad, never entirely one or the other (although the proportions can tip pretty heavily in one direction sometimes). We’ve all made mistakes, missteps, and terribly bad choices. We would not want to be judged as a person because of them. Someone else might object mightily to something we believe or do. That’s inevitable. But for them to attack us personally for it, to want us fired from our job and run out of town on a rail, that is much more serious. That is war.

It is difficult, I know, to make that distinction, to separate the opinions and behaviors from the person themselves. But it’s a skill worth cultivating. It means you can argue with an opponent, tell them honestly what you think, settle the issue or agree to disagree, and then crack open a beer and watch the Red Sox, because those are two things you have in common and can enjoy together.

Working to remember the humanity of someone you disagree with won’t miraculously close the ideological breach between you, but it will begin to diffuse the animosity. It will open the door to productive discussion, to really listening, finding common ground and reasonable compromise.

It will accomplish a heck of a lot more than screaming at each other like blue jays.

Justine “Mel” Graykin lives and writes in Deerfield, and practices free-lance philosophy on her website at justinegraykin.com.