An election is in the air, and we’re about to start hearing campaign ads telling us about the other parties. “The other parties want X. They say they want Y, but don’t trust them! They really want X. But we want Y, just like you do.”
Put any value in place of Y. Then put the opposite in place of X. Then you’ll have written your first attack ad.
“The Left wants to control you. (Take away your guns, take money through taxes, censor your speech through cancel culture.) They say they’re the party of choice, but don’t trust them! They really want control. The Right wants freedom, just like you do.”
“The Right wants to control you. (Restrict your reproductive rights, control Black and Brown bodies through police and incarceration, control sex ed curricula and legislate who can use what bathrooms.) They say they’re the party of freedom, but don’t trust them! They really want control. The Left wants freedom for people like you.”
Let People Speak for Themselves
The handy thing about interpreting someone else’s values for them is that you don’t need to let them speak for themselves. After all, if you listen to each party, they all say that they want freedom. Because, it turns out, they do. They just have a different perspective on what freedom is, who has it, and who needs it. When politicians interpret for their opponents, they turn every difference of perspective into a trust issue. It’s not a disagreement, they imply, it’s a lie.
So we end up with campaigns that aren’t about trying to convince people to see your perspective. They’re about trying to convince people that everyone else is lying to them. And that’s the worst lie of all, the one that undermines all truth.
So don’t buy it. When someone expresses a political view, don’t jump to the immediate conclusion that they’re trying to deceive you. Take them seriously for their intent, and ask them to explain their position. If they can explain it in a way that makes sense to them, ask them to explain it in a way that makes sense to you.
“I support free speech too! But what do you really mean when you say you support free speech? It seems to me that the speech that you’re supporting here is speech that dehumanizes certain people. And the government isn’t actually stopping you from saying it. Who is censoring you? And why do you want the freedom to say things that hurt others?”
“I also want to live in peace, without government intrusion! Where is the line for you between a helpful regulation and a harmful intrusion? I don’t love that the government might want to take away your guns, but where I live the only people who have guns are gang members and the police, and either one of them might shoot me. If we say that nobody should have handguns at all, I think it would make it easier to keep them off of the streets, and that would make my life more safe. So when you say that you don’t want the government to take away guns, I feel like you’re saying that your hobby is more important than my life.”
“I hear you, but I don’t see it that way. Government spending should be under control, but do you know the value we get from our taxes? I couldn’t pay for any of those services if they weren’t government programs. Could you? Do you want to live in a society where some people can’t access basic services?”
We All Want the Same Things
There’s always a common value at the root of our disagreements. There’s always common ground for us to stand on. If we make every disagreement into a matter of distrust and divergent values, there’s no basis for a conversation. The other person just becomes a monster who is trying to manipulate you into giving up your rights. But if we remember that we all actually want the same things, disagreements can actually be resolved. We can find facts that frame the conversation, and then discuss our different perspectives that are shaped by our life experiences. We can learn about our world and each other, and maybe solve our problems together.
After all, solving problems together is the whole purpose of having a government in the first place.