by Jacob Bruggeman
It may seem trivial, the fact that other people are, well, people. Yet we quickly forget this fact when debating one another and reduce our opponents to caricatures or straw men. We take for granted that other people are damaged and fragile (albeit to varying degrees), fraught with anxieties and monsters in a closet entirely unknown to us—that they, like we, are human. Recognizing this brings us closer to understanding one another; it opens, if only by an inch or two, the windows in our own stuffy houses, and lets a breeze in which serves to mediate the anger we often feel when engaged in argument. To have better disagreements, we ought to acknowledge that the other’s humanity–their personhood–is a precondition to their political views.
Frequent readers of The New Herald will note that our writers have long been interested in what motivates and guides human interaction, particularly in the realm of politics. Last year, I argued that Americans need to embrace affection and “appreciative love” as guiding principles for politics in the 21st century. One of our writers asserted that American society has lost its grounding in fundamental agreements–another that public debate ossified because of political extremes. Today, let’s leave society aside and focus on ourselves: how can we, in our daily lives, have more productive conversations? Specifically, how can we disagree with others in less hostile and more educational ways? To start, we can make greater efforts to appreciate the complexities and depths of others.
Here’s a hypothetical example of how this recognition might manifest in human interaction. Suppose that Sally and Grayson, fictional friends who grew up together in Grand Rapids, Michigan, meet up for the first time in over ten years. Sally and Grayson were good friends all through high school–they even dated for a stretch. Sally joined the Marines and did two tours after she graduated high school, and then came back to Grand Rapids where she is now a married mom who’s also climbing the corporate ladder at a security company. Grayson struggled after high school. He went to Central Michigan University to study journalism for three semesters, but dropped out because he never quite fit in on campus or with the friends he made there. He also is back in Grand Rapids, where he’s found a lot of good work as a freelance writer and is a co-owner, after taking a huge risk by pulling out all his savings and going in on a loan, of a hip coffee bar and bookstore.
The two meet in a small downtown diner and greet each other in the typical way old friends do, with hugs and held-back tears and a sense of joy. About forty-five minutes in, Grayson slides into the conversation a casual question about Trump. Sally is actually pro-Trump, whereas Grayson is adamantly against him–Grayson even thinks that Trump is evil. Discussion gets heated, Grayson’s feeling are hurt, and the political conversation ends up being essentially unproductive and uncomfortable. Yet the two move onto another topic, recognizing their fundamental disagreement and the improbability of a productive resolution, and begin laughing again, relishing in each other’s company. In so doing they refuse to let their disagreement dehumanize the other, to make the disagreed-with–another person with thoughts distinct from their own–into the evilest and ugliest of the great unwashed: the wrong.
It’s easy to default to thinking that those with whom we disagree are horrible, terrible, no good idiots–and this is common in today’s culture. It’s much harder to privilege personhood over politics, as Sally and Grayson do in their conversation, and separate the evaluation of another person’s political arguments from the evaluation of another’s personhood. Our public discourse on issues like abortion, immigration, and identity issues make this separation seem impossible. Statements like “to be pro-abortion is to be pro-murder!” or “to be pro-police is to be pro-murder!” make this clear.
So, is Grayson’s and Sally’s interaction what we ought to aspire to? Maybe, but that’s not the point. This is an example in which Sally and Grayson tacitly acknowledge, despite strong disagreements, that the other is an individual with experiences and a history entirely their own, each shaping, somehow or another, their political beliefs. They’re generous to one another. It may seem like I spent a good deal of time going over the histories of these two fictional characters, but you, reader, were only presented with an infinitesimally small portion of Sally and Grayson’s experiences. If a human life were rendered as a billion-word book, I’ve only read one sentence. Each of us is complex and, to some degree, incomprehensible to one another.
As individuals in conversation with other individuals, we ought to have more respect for this basic fact of human life. Our interactions, if they are to be effective, require self-control and a Herculean generosity toward the other that manifest in a willingness to listen and give them the benefit of the doubt.
Jacob Bruggeman is a student at Miami University studying history and political science.