“I can’t even talk to a Republican/Democrat because they’re bad/stupid. After all, they must be [insert dismissive label here] to support such [repeat dismissive label] policies.”
I’ve heard this type of rhetoric a lot lately, especially leading up to the midterms. Because we see policies as heartless, hateful, racist, naive, delusional, etc., we say that the people who support them are those things too. But this logical leaping always reminds me of the first lesson I learned at my Better Angels workshop in July, 2017: don’t make assumptions about people’s character based on their policy positions.
Say you disagree with someone about welfare policy. You could insult the other person for hating poor people or wanting the government to control everything. But these labels are inaccurate and shut down avenues to better understanding. Alternatively, you could talk about how and why both of you came to your position on this policy. You might find out one of you saw the system abused and is concerned about upholding individual responsibility. Maybe the other person used welfare and sees it as protection for our most vulnerable citizens. With those insights, you could then have a conversation about how welfare actually works and what values we should prioritize as a country. Afterwards, you probably won’t agree on everything, but you might not hate each other.
Most of the time, we never get to those conversations. Instead, labels prevent us from understanding what really divides us. And of course, it’s so much easier to make inferences and exaggerations that demonize our opponents. That way, we don’t have justify our own positions. And we don’t have do the slow, frustrating work of uncovering the true source of our disagreements.
Simplifying conflicts into right/wrong sides is easy, but in reality, people’s political motives are more personal and complicated than the labels we throw at them. If we can acknowledge the limitations of these labels, we can start having more productive conversations about how and why we really disagree.
Moreover, if we won’t even try engaging those with whom we disagree–if we label every political opponent as an enemy–how are we supposed to live together? To solve our common problems? Aren’t we supposed to be a country that builds it strength on diversity? E pluribus unum?
I hope our new divided Congress has answers to these questions. I hope they stop throwing labels and try to work with each other. And I hope we as citizens will model the behavior we expect from them.
P.S. I had these mugs made for my tour! I’ll be selling them after shows so you, too, can inspire conversation.