If you did agree, my Republican Friend, to have the dialogue I invited last week, what might we talk about and how?
One idea is to start with the assumptions we’re making about policies or issues we presume we view differently. It could be anything. For example, I’m eager to understand the values behind Republicans’ race to repeal consumer and environmental protections and to remove research and science reports from government websites. Maybe you’d like to know how Democrats condone protesters shouting down conservative speakers on college campuses. We could take turns picking topics.
By “assumptions” I mean things we accept as facts with little supporting evidence or, even more likely, with evidence we’ve selected and accepted as true because it confirms our beliefs.
So, I know what I’m about to suggest may sound overly elaborate, and I’m open to revisions, but I’ve learned that some discipline and structure can be quite helpful in keeping emotional discussions constructive and productive.
We could start by brainstorming, identifying key assumptions that underlie an intractable policy conflict. This is bound to be clumsy at first. Most of us believe our assumptions are delivered truth! Putting them on the table as “assumptions” calls for a suspension of certainty that doesn’t come easily. Also, assumptions can be amorphous, much like implicit biases they are often unconscious so can be hard to identify. Finally, trying to name them could sound like accusations and easily provoke argument.
Among determined people of good faith, these challenges could be met with a commitment to the process, good will, acceptance of our human nature, and humor. Some preliminary study of Jonathan Haidt’s work and his explanation of the “moral intuitions” unique to conservatives and liberals could help normalize some of our differences much as the Myers Briggs preferences can do for personality differences in couples and team mates.
Please note, I am not talking about changing each other’s minds, at least not yet. I am talking only about exploring the beliefs we have that drive our opinions and much of our emotions. This alone could be eye opening.
It’s probably important that we agree to name only our own assumptions, not what we think are the other person’s. Maybe it’s OK to ask each other what assumptions we think the other might be making on a particular topic, but then it’s up to the other to say what he or she thinks they are. It’s very important that we keep our questioning genuine, not rhetorical. Honest, even concerned curiosity can be helpful; accusations framed as questions are not.
Here’s an example to illustrate the idea.
Suppose we decided to talk about tax based government support for single moms living below the poverty line. As the liberal, I might start by naming my assumptions that:
- You are no happier than I am that 40% of children in Cincinnati are living in poverty and suffering the disabling consequences of that.
- Financial independence for a single mother of two children with a bare bones budget requires an income approaching $50,000/year.
- Jobs in that pay range are not available even for moms ready, willing, and able to work.
- Families and private charities do not and probably cannot provide enough support to keep most of those children out of poverty.
- Trickle down economics does not work; most wealth is held privately and not poured into the economy where it could increase the GDP and benefit others either with new jobs or more taxes.
- More taxes for the wealthy and more research-supported subsidy for the poor is the surest and most immediate, effective, and fairest way to solve the problem.
As a conservative you might want to immediately take issue with one or more of my assumptions, but in this exercise you don’t, at least not yet. It’s your turn to name your assumptions. Since you aren’t here (yet) to speak for yourself, I’ll guess that you might say you assume that:
- No one wants to see so many children living in poverty.
- It’s not government’s role to solve people’s private social or economic problems.
- Single moms bring this problem on themselves by having children before they are able to support them or by having them out of wedlock or by getting divorced.
- Government support encourages dependency and disincentivizes people from working to improve their situations.
- Wealthy people already pay a disproportionate amount of the taxes in this country. If taxed less they can provide much needed jobs.
- Government is so inefficient that wasting more tax dollars on another government program is not only unfair, it’s dumb.
With both of our assumptions now on the table we can begin to seek clarification as needed and, without challenging each other, identify the other’s assumptions we think might be at least partially correct. In this example the first statement is an easy start since neither of us thinks it’s desirable for so many children to be living in poverty. Strictly to clarify your meaning I might ask if you assume someone should do something about it, and if not government, then who. Then I look for where I agree.
Thus, without arguing, I would go on to look at your list and share my concurring assumptions that:
- It’s not first or primarily government’s role to solve people’s personal problems. Individuals have the primary responsibility if they are able.
- Having children before finishing education, or out of wedlock, and divorce are all strongly associated with mothers and children in poverty.
- Generations of welfare following the war on poverty disincentivized many people from working.
- Most wealthy and middle class individuals pay more taxes than poor ones.
- Government’s role and mission is broader than a for-profit business’s and often moves more slowly; in that sense it can be less efficient. And, no one wants to waste tax dollars!
You in turn could look at my original list, ask clarifying questions, and name where you think you might agree. This is not a trap or a gotcha game so you wouldn’t need to be afraid to say you assume one of my assumptions is mostly correct just as I was able to concur with some of yours. After a little back and forth to clarify and differentiate our assumptions we might sensibly take a break, have a drink, or quit for the day and think about what we’ve found so far.
With a foundation of our points of overlap we could begin to inquire about the bases for important assumptions we don’t share. For example, you might ask on what do I base my assumption that a single mother of two needs a $50,000 annual income to be financially independent, or that jobs in that pay range aren’t available. If I believed you were seriously interested, really wanted to know if there was a legitimate basis for that assumption, I would make an earnest and honest effort to answer that question. I say earnest meaning I’d spend time to go looking for the answer, and honest because I might have to conclude I don’t know or can’t find evidence to support it.
The linchpin of any true dialogue is being open to changing your mind. Not that you will, but just being open to the possibility changes the nature of the conversation from a debate in which we hurl arguments and facts at each other to a conversation in which we engage each other respectfully as friends, take each other seriously and genuinely share our thinking.
You probably know, Friend, that many liberals think my desire to engage you in dialogue over urgent and critical public policies is naïve and a fool’s errand, that I’m wasting time. They think you will loyally support your Party’s agenda regardless of any new understanding our friendship and dialogue might produce. With liberal resentment growing louder and more strident by the day, I’m guessing your group might say something similar to you. I’ve never seen trust this low and frustrations this high; perhaps the same is true for you.
Still…it’s our country, our only country, I’m not ready to give up. Will you join in a dialogue, dear Friend, and see what we might accomplish together?