The Conversation is Still Worth Having

I came across an article on HuffPost the other day about what it’s like to have a conversation about politics in America. The author, Kayla Chadwick, stated that there are fundamental disagreements between people about the way our government should run and to what degree people should care about the welfare of their fellow citizens. These disagreements have then resulted in the ongoing arguments and bickering about healthcare legislation, tax reform and immigration law, among others.

While these debates are hardly a new feature in politics, American or otherwise, the attitude she brings to the discussion is symptomatic of the way political discourse seems to run nowadays. Her main point is that she is no longer willing to try to engage in conversation with conservative politicians or the citizens that subscribe to similar ideals because they lack basic empathy for other people. The article drips with her disdain for a number recent Republican bill proposals, Trumpcare being simply the tip of the iceberg. The title of her article serves as a clear summary of her view: “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People.” She says that any person who would propose a bill that would take health insurance away from millions of people, vote against laws that increase funding for public schools or allow the working poor to earn a living wage, clearly has no capacity for considering the welfare of others.

I appreciate Chadwick’s candor and I will even admit to sharing some of her hesitation in striking up a conversation with someone who is so far on the other side of the political spectrum.  It would be particularly difficult, for instance, for me to be convinced that access to useful healthcare coverage and medical services should be anything other than basic human rights, as opposed to only rights of humans who can afford them. Furthermore, I could not guarantee that my opinion of a person would be unaffected if I heard someone try to push such an agenda. As much as I may want to engage in a substantive discussion about the merits – or lack thereof – of proposed legislation, it would be a challenge for me to get past that hurdle.

That being said, I think there are aspects of these kinds of arguments that Chadwick is missing. For one thing, Chadwick does not seem interested in reaching any sort of compromise. I don’t necessarily blame her; as she says at the start of the article, many of us have reached “arguing-about-politics fatigue,” so any conversation that starts from a point of disagreement seems doomed to devolve into the shouting, noisy stalemate often portrayed on cable news shows. Even civil conversations often end up sinking to the level of personal insults. Not only is there no “winner,” we end up so angry at each other that we don’t even want to hear each other’s opinions, leaving preciously small hope for any sort of resolution.

The problem with the view of any effort being useless since the goal is unattainable1 is twofold. First, it overlooks the idea of earning partial credit. Senator Bernie Sanders didn’t gain the Democratic Party nomination in the 2016 Presidential election, but he did succeed in pushing the party’s agenda much farther to the left than it had ever been. That is a meaningful achievement, even if he did not win the nomination. Chadwick may not be able to convince a conservative person to flip their entire ideology and become a Democrat but, at least by remaining open to conversation, she may be able to convince them to reevaluate the policies they are defending.

The other problem with reducing the approach to political discourse to the black and white terms of success or failure is that doing so reinforces the isolation of the various groups in our country with their own ideals. “The “I’ve got mine, so screw you,” attitude has been oozing from the American right wing for decades,” Chadwick notes, but she is leaving out the idea that the left has been just as obstinate; we simply replaced selfishness with self-righteousness. We decided that we knew what was best for the country and labeled anyone who disagreed as immoral, uncaring or racist.

I would argue that it is still worthwhile to engage in political conversations with people who do not share our views but that we have to modify our goals. As I said earlier, I agree with Chadwick that fundamental disagreements are extremely unlikely to change; that’s what makes them fundamental. A Republican is not going to suddenly become a Democrat just because I make a good argument, just like I’m not suddenly going to alter my views because I hear a persuasive defense of conservatism. If our objective is to understand each other, however, rather than convince each other, I think we can actually make some headway.

The main reason we often reach stalemates in these conversations is because people don’t want to be told that they are wrong. Most people are more likely to cling to their beliefs, even in the face of irrefutable2 evidence, rather than admit that they might have made a mistake. That’s why starting the discussion with the objective of trying to change someone’s mind is misguided; someone who has decided they are right is extremely unlikely to then decide otherwise.

On the other hand, if we start from a position of trying to understand the other side, rather than change it, we actually have a chance to achieve something much more meaningful. We have become so accustomed to keeping ourselves separated by labels that we have stopped viewing each other as actual human beings.3 The right ridicules liberals for being melodramatic and for not being fiscally conscious. Meanwhile, the coastal elites who campaigned for Hillary labeled Trump voters as uneducated racists, rather than trying to understand the reasons behind their decision to back him.

The best course of action – for all of us – is to talk less, listen more and to start from a place of agreement, rather than a place of conflict. Find out what you have in common with someone from the other side – allegiance to a sports team, family makeup, movie interests, etc. Ask them questions about themselves, their family and their interests. Ask how their background brought them to hold their current political views. Get as deep as you can in understanding where a person is coming from and then – this is the hard part – allow them to keep their beliefs.4 We don’t necessarily all need to agree; in fact, one of the primary tenets of our country is that we are able to move forward, even when we have differing opinions. But, as long as we can continue communicating, we can have a better understanding of each other’s opinions and work to reach some common ground about where our country is heading.

 


1. This concept was summed up by Bart Simpson as, “Can’t win; don’t try.

2. “Irrefutable” is significantly less iron-clad than it used to be, thanks to the knee-jerk reaction of calling a report “Fake News.”

3. We can thank the media – both mainstream and social – for this dynamic.

4. Ana Marie Cox, political correspondent for MTV news and host of the Crooked Media Podcast, “With Friends Like These,” conducted a number of these kinds of interviews with Trump supporters at a rally in Iowa with fascinating results.

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Learning On the Job

I always knew I wanted to have children.

Part of it is that, when I was younger, I just assumed that was the natural course of life. All of the adults I knew had children, largely because all of the adults I knew were either my friends’ parents or my cousins’ parents. Growing up, getting married and having children was just what people did, at least through my young child eyes.

Not much changed as I got older. I always seemed to
get along well with children, whether they were my
young cousins or my friends’ Yavelberg kidsyounger siblings and, aside from some occasional sibling mischief, I’ve always felt protective of my two younger brothers. For instance, one brother and I once got separated from our parents at a museum when we were very young (five and two, six and three, something like that) and I remember sitting and hugging him in the corner of a hallway and telling him everything was going to be fine. (Our parents found us very soon afterwards.) In retrospect, my parental impulses were already developing steadily.

I never really knew why I wanted to have children, though. I knew I liked kids; I knew that I enjoyed telling stories, making funny faces and playing games with them. I knew I liked teaching, which came in handy when I was a camp counselor during my college summers. And I knew I liked listening to children tell their own stories, which has been even more helpful as a social worker. But still, even though I liked being around and working with children, I never knew quite why I wanted to have children of my own.

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Then, five years ago, my son was born. I remember being so astounded that my wife and I had actually created this little pink mush of skin and hair. In the minutes after he was born, I found myself repeating, “Holy crap, it’s a baby!”1 Even though I knew, rationally, that a baby was coming at the end of the pregnancy, I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the idea that “baby” and “this new helpless life form in my arms” were the same thing. One moment, I was Aaron; the next, I was Daddy. I had become a father.

And yet, not quite.

Sure, I had become a father in the biological sense. I had passed on my genetic code to my offspring, thus fulfilling nature’s directive that the existence of the species will continue in the form of another young child playing with his earlobes and making fart jokes.2 But, as far as becoming a dad was concerned, I had so much more to learn.

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I want to see the genetic code that led to this…

I did learn. I learned the straightforward things, like changing diapers, cutting nails (sort of) and packing bags for day trips. I learned how to install car seats, assemble strollers and how to make it through twenty-four hours of flying with a toddler. And I learned the more complicated things, like trying to rock my children back to sleep without waking their mother, watching my son use a nebulizer and having difficult conversations. I learned about the struggle between balancing time at work, time with my wife and time with my kids.

I learned that there is no stronger feeling of guilt than realizing you have put your child in a dangerous situation. And I learned that there is no better feeling than when your baby lays her head on your shoulder.

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I’m thankful that my children have taught me so much about being a better parent, a better husband and a better person, in general. Dads like the ones in the video below don’t always start out that way; it takes a lot of work to learn to be a good father. I’m thankful that I’ve had fantastic teachers who give me new opportunities to learn every day.

I have partnered with Life of Dad and Pampers for this promotion. Use the hashtag #ThanksBaby across all social media platforms to honor dads all over the world for Father’s Day. Also, check in on Twitter at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 17, for a one-hour #ThanksBaby chat with Pampers and Life of Dad, with a chance to win a $250 Visa gift card.


1. My wife, who was nearby getting cleaned up and starting her recovery from the birth, finally said to me, “Well, what did you think it was going to be?”

2. Mission accomplished. Just wait until Shayna starts doing it.

What If…?

Eitan goes to bed fairly consistently at some point between 6:30 and 7:30 each night. He plays hard at school and barely slows down once he gets home, so he’s usually pretty tired by the time he finishes dinner. Trudy bathes him and Shayna, reads Eitan a story, sings to him and then he falls asleep (or, if I’m home, I take care of the bedtime routine).

Shayna is slightly less reliable in that respect. It depends on the day she has had; if she hasn’t had an afternoon nap and it’s been fairly busy (which it often is), she’ll nurse and fall asleep right after Eitan. If she has napped in the afternoon, or if the day has been quieter, she may decide she wants to stay up and play longer. I can’t really blame her; that’s her only real chance to play with both of her parents without her big brother getting in the way.

Trudy and I were playing with Shayna on one such night last week after Eitan had fallen asleep. Shayna has just started taking her first tentative steps without holding on so Trudy and I were passing her back and forth and cheering whenever she managed a few steps instead of plopping back down on the floor. She was only wearing her diaper; she had been snacking on blueberries earlier and we hadn’t put on clean pajamas yet. We figured she could use the freedom and the feeling of her bare feet on the carpet to keep developing her walking skills instead of forcing her to get dressed immediately.

As Shayna made one of her trips between Trudy and me, we noticed a bump on her stomach.

It was small, a slight protrusion from the rest of her belly, about two inches above her navel. We tried lying her down to feel it but it seemed to go away when she lay on her back so we stood her back up and it reappeared. It wasn’t a pimple or a mosquito bite; it was under the skin, but it was definitely… something.

Trudy began asking me what I thought it was. “Is it just swelling? Is it something with her organs? Maybe it’s a hernia. Or maybe it’s a tumor.”

I suppressed my immediate reflex to respond as Arnold Schwarzenegger, largely because I had quickly started wondering if that was actually the case and nothing about the situation seemed funny. Against my better judgment, I started doing Google image searches for “abdominal hernia in baby,” “lump in stomach one year old baby” and “baby stomach tumor.” Trudy called the pediatrician and he said that it was probably just muscular but that we should bring Shayna into the office in the morning.

I tried to tell myself – and Trudy – that it wasn’t a tumor; it was probably nothing. Or it was probably something that could be easily corrected. In my head, though, I had moved from Kindergarten Cop to Toy Story:

In most difficult situations, especially at my job, I’m the human embodiment of Buzz Lightyear: calm, cool and collected, ready to figure out a plan and execute it. But in that moment, my brain had gone full-on Sheriff Woody.

What if it is a tumor? Okay, it’s probably not, but what if it is? And even if it’s not, even if it’s “just” a hernia or something, that’s still going to need to be repaired, right? Doesn’t that mean surgery? Shayna just turned a year last month; she can’t have surgery. But what if she needs it? Doesn’t that mean anesthesia? How can I watch my little girl get prepped for surgery? She’s going to be so scared! It can’t be a tumor. But what if it is?

And, of course, since I’m usually Buzz Lightyear, I didn’t say any of this out loud. All I said – and kept saying – to Trudy was that the doctor was probably right about it being muscular and that we would find out for sure in the morning.

Later that evening, I thought back to my mindset during Trudy’s pregnancies. I tried to remember times when I had asked what-if questions about my yet-to-be-born children but I couldn’t come up with any. This wasn’t a major shock; I tend to focus on the matter at hand in most cases and worry about what-if scenarios when they actually arise. But now I was facing a major what-if and I found myself thinking about how no one ever explains that part to expectant parents. People don’t often talk about the fact that terrible things happen to babies from time to time; that they get sick or they’re born with birth defects or genetic conditions. There are plenty of instructions for how to be a new parent, from how to change a diaper to different breastfeeding techniques to the best sleep-training methods. There are no manuals for how to hold yourself together when your child may be sick.

I’ve written before about my reactions when my kids get sick. The feeling of helplessness is the worst part; there is very little I can do in the moment to fix the problem. One thing I’ve learned is that having more information makes a significant difference. The what-if questions that send my brain into the Sheriff Woody frenzy were spurred by the fact that I didn’t know what was happening to my daughter. I didn’t know whether or not she was in pain or whether I would be able to keep her safe. Lack of information meant I couldn’t set up a plan, which meant I couldn’t find any control over the situation (which is what it means when a person is panicking).

This story actually has a happy-ish ending. We found out that the bump is, in fact, a hernia that will need to be repaired surgically but not for another year or two. The main thing is that Shayna doesn’t seem to be in pain, so we just have to monitor her in the meantime to make sure nothing changes.1 The key was finding out more about the diagnosis. Once Trudy and I knew what we were facing and what to expect, we were able to calm those what-if questions, put our parenting helmets back on (instead of our sheriff hats) and return our focus to keeping Shayna happy and helping her grow.

 


1. It also means I can think about that Kindergarten Cop line and this clip from Friends without feeling guilty.↩