Speaking Across Difference In The Age of Trump

UntitledI’m supposed to know how to conduct difficult conversations. I’ve more-or-less kept this blog alive for a few years now, and despite the history of conflict between Jews and Christians, we’ve kept things civil here. More than civil, I think. This has been a space where people expressed doubt and self-criticism, and felt comfortable thinking out loud.

But truth be told, I haven’t had to work terribly hard to keep Jews and Christians from behaving badly. This is an age of positive Jewish-Christian dialogue. These days, most Jews and Christians appear uncommonly polite in their conversations with each other.

Contrast Jewish-Christian dialogue with the current state of political discourse in the United States. Our public political conversations are not polite, and if my experience is any judge, we’re not having many private political conversations between right and left.

Many of us live inside social bubbles where sharply dissenting political voices do not intrude. My own social bubble does not include Trump supporters. After Trump’s election, I expanded my bubble by “friending” vocal Trump supporters on Facebook. This personal experiment was a singular failure—I’ve since unfriended these friends, or they’ve unfriended me. During the brief course of my failed experiment, I did my best to speak in a friendly tone to my new Trump friends. I kept my personal volume turned down. I did my best to be nice. Such behavior has always served me well in inter-religious dialogue. It didn’t do me a damn bit of good in my inter-political conversations.

The level of rancor I experienced in these conversations was like nothing I’ve experienced in religious dialogue. I was branded a “libtard,” a hypocrite, even anti-Christian. I was accused of promoting political violence, socialism and communism. My reaction: I felt not so much disparaged as dismissed. It felt like my dialogue partners wanted to place me in a political box—once packaged as a “liberal,” I could be treated as a known quantity, no better or worse than any other liberal, and no more worthy of personal consideration.

And in fairness … I doubt I behaved much better. After all … I KNEW that at some point, I’d write this blog post and I’d have to account here for my conduct. I’m sure I’ve kept a civil tongue, but the way I speak cannot be that much different from the way others speak on the left. I see the caustic and insulting way folks on the left speak about conservatives. I recall conversations I’ve had with friends before the Trump election, friends who are thinking and caring conservatives, who told me what often happens when they mention in conversation that they vote Republican … the conversations shut down, they tell me. They tell me they feel themselves being judged, and dismissed. They’ll tell me, “Liberals say they’re tolerant, but they’re not tolerant of people like me.” They tell me they’d like to have thoughtful conversations about race without being branded a “racist,” or about gender and sexuality without being branded a “sexist” or “homophobe.” And indeed … I see plenty of racism, sexism and homophobia on the left as well as the right.

Given that my interreligious dialogue is going better than my dialogue across political difference, I wonder whether there are lessons from religious dialogue to apply to political dialogue. For example: we learn in interfaith dialogue not to paint all members of a religion with the same brush. We don’t say that all Christians believe X, or that all Jews believe Y. We don’t ask the Jewish or Christian representative in dialogue to represent all Christians, or all Jews. We might learn to speak along the lines of, “Some Trump voters believe …” or “I’ve met Democrats who have told me …”.

Here’s another thought. One rule in Jewish-Christian dialogue (and I think, in all formal or intentional forms of inter-religious dialogue) is that conversion is off the table. That is, we don’t engage in such dialogue with a religious other with the intention of trying to convince that other to abandon her religion and join our religion. I wonder whether a similar rule should be applied to political dialogue: what if we engaged in discussion across political difference without trying to convince our political opponents to switch sides? I’ve suggested this rule to a few close friends, and so far, no one is buying it. I’m told, the whole point of political argument is to try and win friends to your side. I’m told that the point of politics is winning, and that we win elections by winning debates, by appealing to logic and reason, by standing up for what’s right, by speaking to values we all (mostly) share.

But let’s note: there were three political debates during the last election, and by all objective accounts Hillary Clinton won all three debates. Polls showed Clinton winning debates by margins larger than 2-1, meaning (it would seem) that large numbers of people thought Clinton won the argument and voted for Trump anyway. I also note that during the entire 2016 campaign, I never met anyone who rationally compared Clinton’s and Trump’s good points to decide how to cast their vote. I did meet a number of people who expressed their disgust with both candidates in roughly equal measure, but that’s not quite the idealized picture of how dialogue in a democracy is supposed to work.

How do people make political decisions? I’m not a good person to ask; when it comes to Democrats versus Republicans, I’ve never voted for the Republican. In this, I’m my mother’s son. My father once voted for a Republican, and my mother made him sleep on the couch for a week. (Full disclosure: this is a story my mother told me; I don’t remember my father ever sleeping on a couch, though when I was little I don’t know if I took any notice of where my father slept.) My mother spoke with reverence about FDR, and JFK. She voted Republican only when the Republican was Jewish and endorsed by New York State’s Liberal Party (Hello, Jacob Javits!). I think my mother would haunt me like Hamlet’s father if I ever punched a chad for a Republican.

I vote like my family taught me to vote. In this way, I was born into the Democratic party just as surely as I was born into Judaism. I’m no more likely to convert from one than the other. That being the case, why should dialogue aimed at conversion be any more appropriate when I’m talking to a Republican than when I’m talking to a Christian?

More (I hope) on this topic in a later post.

  • Chris Eyre

    Nice to see you blogging again.

    I might be something of a counterexample – I grew up in a household which voted Conservative (which is sort of our equivalent of Republican), and up to my teens was set to continue the tradition – but then my school held a mock election, and I got told that I would be a candidate – and managed to swap my original given party (Communist) for Liberal, because I was certain I couldn’t do a good job of arguing for Communism, and the guy with Conservative wouldn’t swap… and I wouldn’t have wanted to swap with the girl who drew Labour! … and I sent off to the party for help, as I hadn’t the faintest idea what the Liberals stood for (small third party at the time). I got deluged with material, and read it, and converted myself. I also managed (narrowly) to win the mock election, which was something of a surprise, as everyone had expected Conservative to win.

    I continued in that mould for a long time, managing to get elected as a local councillor for the Liberals and then the Liberal Democrats (after the merger with ther Social Democratic Party), serving on various councils for 25 years or so.

    Initially, I was definitely Liberal in terms of social policy, but pretty hawkish in terms of foreign policy, but a lot of reading of the synoptic gospels over the years resulted in me deciding that Christianity really implied nonviolence.

    So, while it wasn’t actually arguing with others which changed my political opinions, they did change – and it was really through educating myself in the “other” point of view.

    BTW, religiously the household was Christian, I rebelled against that in childhood and was a loud atheist for several years, and then (due to a peak mystical experience) went looking for a framework for that, finally capitulating to the one I knew best from childhood.

    At the point of writing, having continued to read the synoptics, I’m toying with the idea of going the whole distance and shifting to Labour, now they’ve decided they’re socialists again – but I have nearly 50 years invested in the LibDems, and that would be an emotional wrench.

    • Chris, thanks for this! A quick question: did your conversion from Conservative to Liberal cost you anything? In terms of relationships, or regard/respect? Who was pleased, and who was not?

      • Chris Eyre

        Heh. It put another element of strain on my relationship with my mother, who persisted in acting as a polling station representative for the Conservatives even when I was standing for the Liberals – and then my Dad came out and said he was a Liberal too… But there were a LOT of elements of strain between me and mother at the time, and we sorted things out really well a little later. Though she still kept on voting Tory! Otherwise, it wasn’t much of a problem – the Conservative and Communist candidates at the mock election were close friends anyhow, and stayed that way.

        I fancy it did cost me something later, though, as when I stood for election the first time as a Liberal, I was an assistant solicitor with a firm which was headed by the Conservative leader on the County Council, and they asked me to find new employment shortly after that. Not, of course, ostensibly because of my politics, but…

        • Chris, over here, the Trump election has broken up marriages and estranged children from parents. The social cost of switching sides here is more than most people can afford.

          • Chris Eyre

            Liberal was seen as a “middle of the way” choice (wrongly) by both Conservatives and Labour – you could get family bust-ups from a Labour/Conservative split (or even more so if someone went full Communist) even then – and that was considerably pre-Thatcher, which made things worse. Brexit can have much the same effect…

            • Ahhh. An advantage of living in a country with more than two major political parties.