If there is any bright side to The Phantom Menace, it’s this line from Yoda:
“Fear is the path to the dark-side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Like young Anakin Skywalker, our modern political discourse needs this sage advice. The 2016 presidential campaign and the post-election turmoil can feel like we are politically slipping towards the dark-side.
Daniel Shapiro, founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, has some Yoda-like wisdom when it comes to political divisiveness. He writes, “Through over two decades of global fieldwork in negotiation, I have observed a common dynamic to emotionally charged conflicts. Confrontation focuses our emotional energies on the singular goal of winning over the other side. As we become consumed in this mindset, we reenact partisan patterns of conflict that may comfort our fears but undermine cooperation. Fierce loyalty to ‘our side’ makes it taboo to break ranks, no matter what our leaders espouse. And should we feel an assault on our sacred values—the core of our identity—our anger turns to outrage, hardening the lines of division.”
(Anger to outrage? This dude sounds a lot like Yoda. Did he learn negotiating from Yoda, or did Yoda learn it from him?).
“There is an allure to this kind of politics, a sense of falling, of vertigo. We fall in love with a candidate. We fall in hatred toward another. We fall through a dizzying, contagious mixture of appeals to loyalty and identity. Breaking ranks becomes taboo because it breaks an addictive cycle. It becomes taboo to communicate with the ‘other side,’ to show respect or acknowledge the legitimacy of any of their perspectives. And political commentators tell us that divisive politics is necessary for running a campaign, for getting elected, for governing. To question the dysfunction is to undermine what is necessary for the survival of our nation. Everything we need in order to resolve a conflict becomes taboo.”
If we allow ourselves to follow this pattern of fear and anger, we slip into a us versus them mode. We condition ourselves to measure everything in terms of winning and losing and we lose sight of the real vision of perfecting the union and instead become nearsighted to our myopic world view–one that only has the “us” and the “them,” no longer the “we.” We denigrate the constitution from “We the people” to “Me the winner” and “You the loser.” This sadly seems to be the state of our current politics.
Mr. Shapiro, like Yoda, also offers some hope—A New Hope, perhaps (you’re welcome).
“We have the power to discern the values put forward by the many groups in our own society, and to work to fit them to a shared vision of democracy.”
So, we can and must learn to agree without being disagreeable. To stop yelling so we can listen. We must learn to have conflict without contention, ideas without animus.
Does this mean we all get into the drum circle and start playing nice, never to disagree again? It can’t mean that. Like one of my twentieth century heroes said, “Freedom rings where opinions clash.” Adlai Stevenson
Being pleasant alone doesn’t move to progress on an issue. I worry many of us, myself included, are exhausted by the prospect of engaging in the process. We say “A pox on both their houses, I’m not in Congress, what can I do?” Well, I believe we do change the world by changing ourselves. We can’t wait for someone else to bring about civil discourse we’re the ones we been waiting for!
So how do we change this polarized climate? How do we learn to talk, to listen, and to work through an issue that leads to resolution, not annihilation?
Here’s what I’ve been trying to do:
1. Try to understand where others are coming from. I like to use the phrase “I would say you would say,” to see if I have an idea of what that person is already thinking.
2. Once I understand why you believe what you do, we can build on common ground and then clearly identify the issues without it being personal.
3. Deal with the fact that the person you are dealing with may not accept the facts as you see them.
4. Stay informed even though the news sometimes (oftentimes) is depressing. We have to stay informed to stay empowered. Democracy dies in the dark. Ignorance is not a virtue!
5. Make your social media and daily conversations a safe place. Dial it back. We can speak truth to power and make our voices heard and still be civil and kind.
6. Change how you view winning. Instead of viewing a win as getting someone to agree with you, what if the win was being able to clearly articulate what others think and how they feel, and helping others articulate your views?
We all know how it turned out for Anakin (spoiler alert he blew up a planet and kept designing super flawed mega weapons. P.S.–also not father of the year).
It may be more complex today to restore balance to American politics than it was to restore balance to the force, but it’s worth a try, right?