Solomon: Real Talk

Convenient political discourse must give way to uncomfortable debate.

by Ioana Solomon | 5/2/17 12:25am

Among the countless animal videos, fashion ads and memes in my Facebook feed, I noticed one striking trend: a massive amount of political content. Then I noticed another: Throughout the hour or so I spent scrolling through my feed, every political status or shared article represented views that I already agreed with.

Many of us claim to be politically conscious. We talk a lot, we share a lot and we read a lot of headlines. We believe ourselves to be well-informed, aware of our political reality and open to dialogue. The problem is that the dialogue we engage in is not the kind of dialogue we firmly profess as the solution to our political divide. Our political conversations have become nothing more than just that — conversations. We embrace discourse, but only because the discourse we engage in no longer involves real debate.

Our political conversations have become ego boosters, ways to feel good about ourselves for glancing at the same headlines, for unanimously agreeing that President Donald Trump’s actions and statements are atrocious and for validating our own sense of moral superiority. We share dozens of Facebook posts condemning the president’s administration and those who voted it into power. We fill our laptop covers with pro-choice stickers and go-green quotes, and we go to sleep every night feeling righteously proud of ourselves for being educated and engaged citizens.

Granted, we are vaguely conscious that our “slacktivism” does not do much more than alter our own image and social standing. Most of us agree that if we want anything to change, we need to actually show up to voting booths. The Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics survey of “Young Americans Toward Politics and Public Service of Young Americans,” released on April 25 found that of the 2,654 Americans aged 18 to 29 who were polled, 74 percent ranked voting as the best method for producing change. However, only half of Millennials punched a ballot in the 2016 election.

Admitting to our own hypocrisy is imperative, and it needs to happen in two ways. First, we need to show up to vote. Telling our friends what candidate or party we support does nothing if we do not also tell our country. Second, we need to realize that our voices can be powerful, but only if we use them to have difficult conversations, not easy, self-affirming ones.

However, in the Trump era, having those difficult conversations is not a simple proposal. We have reached a moral impasse in our ability to draw a line between what it means to be open to discourse and what it means to validate ethically perverse, hurtful and dangerous attitudes.

Our dialogue is no longer a question of choosing between left and right, between Democratic and Republican platforms or between liberal and conservative values. Life would be a lot easier if that were the case. Unfortunately, Trump’s unprecedented background, numerous policy U-turns and unusual manner of communicating with the American public, with Congress and with foreign leaders push him far out of the norms of a U.S. president. He throws everyone off, because in an ironically Trump-esque fashion, our national discourse has become centered not on different sets of values but on one man and whether we support or condemn him.

When the president elected by the American right is xenophobic, sexist, racist and radically against the inclusion of any minority group that threatens his vision of a gun-carrying, anti-abortion, purely white America, we inevitably have to ask ourselves if by attempting to debate those who support him, we do not inadvertently give legitimacy to his doctrine.

Upon reaching that obstacle, many of us seek the two easiest paths. We either continue to have conversations only with those whose opinions already align with ours, or we pledge to remain uninvolved in politics. Both of those paths belong only to those with the highest form of privilege. Not feeling the immediacy to act or the instinct to fight means that we have enough of a cushion, not to fear the impact of this administration or similar ones to come.

At Dartmouth, it may be easy to ignore the striking difference between our own sociopolitical standing and that of millions of Americans who genuinely do have reason to fear. However, that kind of inaction is not just immoral but will also inevitably reduce our bubble of privilege until we find ourselves in the same position of fear and discomfort.

To deal with polarization — and with the underlying moral divide — we have to understand phenomena social psychologist Robb Willer spent years of research analyzing: Both political sides prioritize certain values over others. The left tends to care about equality, fairness, care and protection, while the right tends to think in terms of loyalty, patriotism, respect for authority and spiritual — often religious — purity. Willer suggests that the key to having better political conversations is moral reframing: taking the other side’s deeply held moral compass into consideration and shaping one’s arguments in terms of their values. Someone is much more likely to agree with you or to consider having a profound conversation if she knows that her moral framework can remain intact.

It will not be easy, but we need to stop rehashing our own political act and talking only for our own ears. We have to go further, think smarter and converse more empathetically. Only then can our voices be real weapons and not just echoes.