Birth2Work

When Parents Lead, Children Succeed

Op-Ed: Can we talk? Even politics?

Op-Ed: Can we talk? Even politics?

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July 26, 2014
by
Rick Stephens and Elane V. Scott

As Congress winds down in preparation for its annual August recess, we at Birth2Work started to call one another. We started to talk about our desire to renegotiate our contracts so we would have it in writing that we get August off, too. (Ha!) And then we started talking about politics. Not our individual opinions on political subjects – though we have those, too, and those conversations become rather robust at times. We actually started talking about the fact that almost no one talks about politics anymore.

In a few places it’s still common. If you work in politics, then it’s considered “shop talk”. If you become aware of political activity-usually at the local level-that will directly affect you (lower your property value, for example) then you may talk with neighbors on that topic. For the most part, though, setting off a political bomb in mixed company is considered awkward and, for many, impolite.

There are a few social mores in the U.S. that we tend to hold dear at family gatherings, in new relationships, and with anyone we may need to keep the peace such as:

  1. Don’t talk about money.
  2. Don’t talk about religion.
  3. Don’t talk about politics.

Why? For us at B2W, lack of opportunity for candid discourse on core values is a major concern. If the only forums safe for political discussion are among our immediate peers (economic stratum, age demographic, geographic region, and many times same political perspective) then how do we hear the other side? If the back and forth of political discussion is so divisive that it’s no longer considered polite in mixed company, how are we to hear new ideas and expand our viewpoints? By talking only to people who we know think and behave as we do, we end up in a circle of reinforcement. That may be great for our self-esteem, but does little to inspire collaboration, understanding, democracy, or human interaction.

Let’s consider for a moment the media’s role in helping to create feelings of woe around political discussion. First off, there is the “modeling” issue. If the only examples of political exchange we have as a country are on Sunday morning roundtable shows or politically oriented radio talk-shows, then it’s no wonder anyone sitting around their dinner table might be struck down with fear when someone else mentions Congress…or the President…etc. On television and radio, people armed with reams of information and targeted messaging sit and aggressively talk at each other. There’s very little listening. They seek to point out the weakness in each other’s arguments and the whole exchange is brief and explosive. Then it’s over and everyone goes home. That’s what producers and ratings indicate makes good programming.

In real life, the information most people are armed with is surface level and they are afraid of looking stupid if they try to have a political conversation without having all the facts. (As if that’s ever possible.) We call this the “expert affect”, in which an individual is too afraid to appear foolish. As a result, s/he opts out of engagement entirely and instead leaves decision making and discussion to the “experts”.

In addition to the fear of appearing foolish, after any kind of heated exchange in a home or office, people are stuck having to maintain their relationship, familial or professional. They cannot simply walk away. Opposing viewpoints on fundamental personal truths have to give way to lay talk such as, “so, what’s for dinner?” or “hey, did you get that memo?” It’s nearly impossible to simmer down to that kind of banality if one has been challenged about their core personal beliefs. We may find that such conversation alters our perspective on our family members, friends or colleagues for the worse; there’s no going back from that. So most people eschew political engagement at all.

The alternative to TV and radio talk is, of course, the internet. Many people choose to “engage” on line because of the feeling of relative safety that anonymity gives. But this makes us recall the now proverbial quote by Marshall McLuhan, “The medium is the message”. The central theory behind the saying is that the medium through which content is carried plays a vital role in the way it is perceived. So the active participation of thousands of people in online political forums lets us know that political “discussion” is best had in isolation where lambasts and accusations can be thrown freely and without consequence. That doesn’t seem to be the healthiest way to promote citizenship or support our democracy does it?

It’s hard to know if there was ever a time when talking politics was casual or easy. After all, the passion and fury our beliefs ignite within us are what have started wars, birthed nations, split counties, restored peace, and secured neighborhoods. But there was a time when the examples of political exchange around us were more common in public and, therefore, more varied than what we now see; some contentious, some open and some respectful. Regardless, until the last few generations, discussion of any kind was done only one way: in person. Angry grandpas were more numerous than angry pundits. There were no lecturing show hosts, only lecturing professors. And there was no hiding in solitude if you wanted to lob a political bomb at someone. It had to be done to their face. (And there was likely beer involved.) The element of human interaction was what gave our democracy its breath of life. Every faction, every person, every outburst and every Pledge of Allegiance was a practice in checks and balances within the populace.

Here’s hoping we each reevaluate our own practices in political exchange during the month of August. Listening to someone of the opposing viewpoint - really taking it in and not thinking ahead to how you may want to disprove their point - is the beginning of meaningful political exchange. Fewer accusations and more listening would help us all examine and expand our own perspectives. Read more local news and talk about it with friends. Ask one person what it felt like to vote for the first time. Better yet, write an OpEd piece for your local paper. Whether it gets published or not, it will certainly generate an interest in what others think close to home. We know our elected representatives read their local newspapers. “If the followers will lead, the leaders will follow,” said Gandhi. And come September, maybe some in the Administration and Congress will learn from those whom they represent, that perhaps solutions can be found in the compromise and not at the extreme. (Maybe. If there’s beer involved!)


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