I’ve been struggling to write this article because it’s messy and personal. It’s why we don’t get into political discussions with other people. But, as usual, I think we learn better from sharing.
*sigh. Here goes.
My story begins when George W. Bush was finishing his second term. The 2008 elections were turning into somewhat of an historical event as the Republican and Democratic primaries came to an end. We had the choice between Republicans John McCain/Sarah Palin or Democrats Barack Obama/Joe Biden – first female vice president or first black president.
During this same time, being newly married to a politically active person, I started to learn more about what was going on. I read more articles and listened to commentary about politics and government. I had always been interested in these topics, but had never really had a chance to discuss them in a safe environment. My husband proved to be a great debater who let me push back and disagree without getting upset. I especially enjoyed our conversations because we had very different upbringings – his more liberal and mine more conservative.
At the time, I was also serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Romania working as a business consultant. Though I still held fast to many of my core values as I talked with foreigners about our current president, I started to gain an international perspective as well.
The more I researched the two candidates and their running mates, the more I found myself leaning towards voting for Barack Obama.
This, however, did not sit well with a certain family member – I’ll call him, uh, Phil.
He’s a distant relation, by marriage, of my parents’ generation, so normally I wouldn’t care. But Phil had been somewhat of a mentor to me during my teenage years. He taught me a lot about the world and I valued his opinion. So, when Phil started a conversation about politics, I was eager and happy to talk.
Phil explained that he had once been like me, young and new to politics. He sent me some jokes and commentary from sources he trusted. The jokes were dumb and appealed to his generation, so I did my best to reply politely. The commentary came from sources I didn’t particularly trust and I found the tone of the message alarmist and extreme. I tried to casually mention a few things that weren’t so bad, or clarify terms. Phil was respectful and the conversation seemed to be going well.
I was determined, however, not to let my vote for United States president hang on one particular issue. Phil, however, didn’t see it that way. He saw a vote for Obama as a vote for abortion. And that’s when something happened that I was totally unprepared for.
A discussion about abortion.
In my previous posts about liberals (progressives) and conservatives, I haven’t really addressed specific political issues because that’s a larger topic and it’s kinda scary. It’s important to mention, however, the fact that once you show signs of being either progressive or conservative, you are automatically lumped into that group. Suddenly, you believe everything that either progressives or everything conservatives believe. So, by considering voting for Obama, according to Phil, I was now a progressive and I believed everything that “progressives” believe.
The abortion topic has been discussed at length by many people, but as far as the Republican/Conservative and Democrat/Progressive platform goes, the arguments have narrowed down to one important question: When does life begin? At conception? Or at birth?
What I didn’t know was that conservatives have already defined the answer to this question by stating that life begins at conception. Progressives have defined the answer by stating that life begins at birth. My ignorance was my undoing in my conversation with Phil.
Now assuming that I believed everything that progressives believe (and I was not aware that I was assumed to believe these things), Phil posed the question that if life begins at birth, what about the minute before a child is born? Is it alive then? What about a few weeks before the child is born? Is it alive then?
A fair question, but stupid me thought it was a real speculative question and it made me reflect on what I believed about human life. Rather than establish common ground, that we both valued human life and that I believe that each conceived child is precious, I decided to take the logical approach.
(Oh no, Emily. Big mistake.) Yeah, I know. — I know NOW.
I answered Phil by challenging what we, as humans, needed to “live”. Did we need a heart? A head? Lungs? What if a baby developed without a head? Was it alive? Would he consider the baby alive if certain parts of the body failed to develop?
Dumb. That was really dumb.
Phil did not like my questions. In his mind because of the way I approached the conversation, I didn’t value life. To him, I was pro-abortion and the discussion went totally down hill from there.
I don’t blame him. I had tried to skip steps. I was too focused on the idea of a debate that I failed to understand how Phil would feel about it.
After that fumbled attempt to talk politics, all those years ago, Phil has basically written me out of his life. He has found ways to avoid seeing me, talking to me, and has often mentioned to my mom and sister how I disappointed him. To Phil, the topic of abortion is so important that mistakes are not okay.
But I am grateful for the lesson I learned.
- Validate the other person’s position before launching into your own.
- Find common ground. There is ALWAYS common ground.
- Don’t let logic get in the way of the human element. Remember that the person you are talking with is more important than “making your point”.
We’re going to make mistakes when trying to make sense of politics and political issues. But if we really see each other, and can look past labels, there’s a chance.
I can tell, Emily, that you are of the younger generation….Why do I say that ? Because of your ability and advice to see through the politics to the people behind the rhetoric.
The ability to find common ground might be easier for the younger generation. I’m not saying that older people can’t learn how to do that too. It’s a skill that can be acquired.
I applaud your efforts, Emily, to spread the message of getting along. I want to learn these skills so I can live in a peaceful community where everyone is valued.
Thanks for being brave to start the conversation and encourage us to reach for better, stretch ourselves, and create something we can all enjoy.
Thank you! I feel there’s a lot I don’t understand about previous generations’ approach to politics and that’s probably what got me in trouble with Phil. I applaud YOU for the desire to live peacefully with others!
Emily i applaud your tolerance and willingness to meet Phil half way about that topic.
I think that conversations need two people who are willing to listen to each other and sadly i think that Phil was not willing to hear any opinion contradicting his.
You’re a great person and it’s his loss for not choosing to have you as part of his life.
Excellent comment… So good, I’m going to turn it into another post!