Alex Trachsell, Staff Writer
The month of February is seemingly dedicated to a smorgasbord of themes, from the weighty civil/black rights movement to the jovial Valentine’s Day. February’s designation as Black History Month conjures up images of struggle, enemies and allies, right and wrong, and political combat. Valentine’s Day, on the other hand, evokes feelings of empathy, forgiveness, understanding and compassion. However, I think that the disparity of these themes is merely a product of our imaginations.
At this point it’s hardly breaking news to point out that political discourse in our current day is highly polarized. In the 280-character world of Twitter.com, most people have space only to communicate an opinion – likely a conclusion they’ve drawn from other media. By extension, rebuttals now constitute responses to others’ conclusion with a conclusion of one’s own and a debate becomes merely rewording one’s conclusions, perhaps with enough room for a petty insult.
If we treated our political counterparts like we treated our Valentines I think we could better understand our opinions and be more constructive in political discourse. I’m certainly not suggesting that we court people with different approaches to affordable housing than ourselves, but it would help if we were more willing to listen to their reasoning and avoid getting caught up in (what we think is) their clearly incorrect conclusion.
For example, let’s assume person A thinks that taxes should be lower because taxation is theft, while person B thinks that taxes should be higher because we need the revenue taxation generates to provide basic necessities. Let’s say A begins by claiming that using the threat of force to take someone’s possessions describes taxation and also fits the definition of theft. If B responds with an argument such as “Yeah, well people shouldn’t starve just because one person wants to hoard all the wealth,” then both A and B will be having a debate, but it will only consist of stating conflicting ideas. B’s statement seems correct to B because it supports their conclusion, while A, even if they recognize this, will remain unconvinced because B has not addressed A’s argument.
Overall, A and B began by stating conflicting reasons and instead of engaging with each others’ reasoning, they merely continued to state conflicting arguments. Clearly, it’s not obvious how many conflicting arguments for arguments for arguments need to be stated before the root of the disagreement is found. In fact, most people probably don’t have the patience or time for that game and will end up saying something like “Some people just don’t get it.” After all, this much would be clear to A, since they would likely realize that B never actually engaged with A’s arguments and could do nothing more than state their own arguments that lead to their conclusion (and vice versa).
Now, let’s imagine what could have happened if A and B had treated each other as their Valentines. With a greater willingness to be empathetic and to understand each other, B might have responded by engaging with A’s argument. B might ask, “Why do you think that one has the right to the wealth they possess?” or “How do you explain how A has earned that wealth?” and “Do we even have free will to earn this or that in the first place?” When the interlocutors are more interested in understanding their differences and seeing the issue from each others’ point of view and less interested in appearing confident in their own opinions, the root of the disagreement is much easier to find.
Furthermore, when we are able to quickly get down to the heart of the issue, we find questions we haven’t even considered before, giving us the opportunity to rethink and refine our opinions. For example, B might have always found their argument for higher taxation more convincing than A’s argument for lower taxation. However, when B finds that one of the main differences in their disagreement with A comes down to how/if people earn what they possess and the subsequent right anyone has to take that from them, they may find that their opinion on the topic disposes them to A’s conclusion. Alternatively, B may find that their position reaffirms their original conclusion, in which case they have developed a more informed opinion (which they will be able to better explain to A and other people with A’s opinion). Thus, through patience and empathy we learn more about each others’ opinions, our differences, our similarities and our own opinions.
Martin Luther King Jr. – deservedly an icon of black history – is quoted as having said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” I think this speaks to how we could benefit from having our approaches to Valentine’s Day and Black History Month meet in the middle. Admittedly, most of our debates are less clear-cut than the civil rights movement (I could say “black and white,” but that would be inappropriate) and rarely are certain sides clearly in the wrong, as white supremacists were/are. Nonetheless, the message remains the same: if you want to persuade your interlocutors or learn something for yourself, we should avoid cultivating indignation or intolerance and instead listen and think with love and empathy.