The Elephant in the Room

An experiment in better conversations.


Our conversations are broken. Both on a national level and amongst friends. Everyone knows the rule for successful Thanksgiving conversation is to avoid politics at all costs, right? Discussions about current events and how to fix them can only end in ruined holidays… right? I think there’s a better way.

SUMMARY
A diverse culture can make it difficult to work together. However, this diversity can also be our greatest strength, if we:
-Reject Winner-Takes-All scenarios,
-Refuse to demonize our opponents, and
-Allow for gracious change.

In order to fix our conversations, its’s important to understand what’s broken in the first place.

The Problem

Our country is often described as a melting pot, and rightly so. There are millions of people here, each with a unique history and perspective. We come from different religions, a spectrum of economic conditions, and our lives are shaped by experiences as unique as our fingerprints. But this incongruity in experience makes it difficult to connect at times. Thats the first problem.

This diversity is a double-edged sword. If we allow it, our eyes can be opened by understanding our world through another’s eyes. But more often than not, we actively blind ourselves by assuming that our own perspective is the only valid one. Someone much smarter than I could probably explain the neuro-science that causes our brains to have an inordinate level of trust in their own interpretation of life. Our brains tend to trust themselves over anything else. It’s why the bad guys in movies never think that they’re the bad guys. It’s also why the bad guys in real life never realize they’re the bad guys. Brains don’t like admitting that they’re wrong. And yet, we know that a great many brains are really really wrong in the conclusions they find. That’s another problem.

Both of these problems are illustrated by a poem about blind men and an elephant:

It was six men of Indostan, 
To learning much inclined, 
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind), 
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approach’d the Elephant, 
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side, 
At once began to bawl: 
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk, 
Cried, -”Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp? 
To me ‘tis mighty clear, 
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approach’d the animal, 
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands, 
Thus boldly up and spake: 
“I see,” -quoth he- “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand, 
And felt about the knee: 
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,- 
“’Tis clear enough the Elephant 
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, 
Said- “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most; 
Deny the fact who can, 
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope, 
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope, 
“I see,” -quoth he,- “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long, 
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong, 
Though each was partly in the right, 
And all were in the wrong!

This is what I meant about a double edged sword. Each man in the poem was absolutely sure of what he had experienced. But imagine if each of the blind men had entered the conversation with the assumption that they did not have the full picture. It would require humility, certainly, and possibly some good-natured laughter as each realized how wrong they were. But ultimately, each would leave with a better understanding of truth.

Today, the two problems described above—and illustrated in the poem—are exacerbated by a media culture that thrives on conflict and profits from outrage.

YouTube is filled with sound bytes of people “DESTROYING” each other.

From 24 hour news cycles that fill their time with fruitless, endless debate, to YouTube channels who gain subscribers at a rate proportionate to the rage they display, our situation seems bleak. And when we learn how to speak about politics from such places, it’s no wonder that we emulate the rage; it’s all we know.

Thats another problem.

And another Thanksgiving is ruined.


So that’s the bad news.

The good news is, there’s a better way. So let’s talk about the elephant in the room.

The chart below describes the 5 different methods for conflict resolution: Forcing, Accommodating, Avoiding, Compromising, and Collaborating.

It’s important to note that each method has a time and place, but generally, collaboration produces the best results over long periods, and thats the one I want to discuss here. Unfortunately, forcing is the tactic we see most often in politics, with each side trying to dig in their heels and refusing to move until governments are shut down or violence erupts. Very rarely do we see a good compromise, and avoidance seems the poison of choice whenever turkey and pie are present. Turns out we’re not great at collaborating. Possibly because it requires the most tact and effort, and we really haven’t been taught how by politicians or by the media. So here are a few tips I’ve learned, from practicing such conversations with family members and friends.


Tip 1: Reject Winner-Takes-All Scenarios

While media channels and politicians may argue otherwise, I don’t believe most issues to be zero-sum games, where one side must lose in order for the other to win. This is a hard mindset to kick, because most issues are framed this way in debates: things are black and white, and the rule is kill or be killed. This leads to a lot of shouting and head-butting, and no real solutions. Often, the labels we assign ourselves and others exploit this idea that the two sides are fundamentally incompatible: those who oppose abortion label themselves ‘Pro-Life’ — the implication being that their opponents must be ‘Pro-Death’. Those who fight for the right to abortion obviously don’t think of themselves that way; they prefer the label ‘Pro-Choice’ — implying that the other side must be ‘Anti-Choice’. Because these labels carry so much baggage and built-in accusations, it’s difficult to see past them. It’s also easier to yell when you can paint your opponent as pro-murder or anti-women. But I would suggest that the majority of Pro-Choice people do not want to murder babies, and most of the Pro-Life folks don’t want to enslave women. So what if we entered a conversation with that in mind — acknowledging that there might just be a way to empower women and save as many lives as possible? Both are worthy goals. And they are not mutually exclusive.

The trick is re-framing the debate away from the zero-sum game scenarios. I firmly believe that abortion is wrong. But I’ll probably never convince someone of that fact by yelling or hurling facts; it’s not a tug-of-war where the winner converts the loser.

But if we put down the rope for a moment, we might find that there are things we can discuss that advance us towards both our goals (empowering women and saving lives). We might begin the conversation with a discussion about sexual intimacy and the responsibilities that come with it: something society has largely forgotten. We should probably discuss birth control, and our access to it — and that includes male birth control. Speaking of men, somehow they need to be held more accountable when they impregnate a woman; we might make it harder for men to disappear without providing financial and emotional support to the life they co-created. We definitely need to talk about the broken adoption system and how we might improve that. All of this would empower women, freeing them from feeling so trapped, alone and hopeless. It would also save lives. I’m not saying the problem would be solved right away, but these are issues we might actually agree on, and could make some real progress. Then, when we’re used to working together and trusting each other again, we can have the really hard conversations about when abortion is necessary and at what point we should allow it or remove it from the table. But when discussing with family or friends, you don’t have to solve the world’s problems completely—but that doesn’t mean we should avoid the conversation. Try something like this:

“I know we have pretty different ideas about this, but I think our goals are actually more compatible than you think! What if there was a way to empower women AND save as many children as we can? What if we…”

See how that’s a better conversation than the zero-sum game versions of: “In order to save lives, we must take away women’s choices” or “In order to achieve equality, women need the right to kill unborn babies”?

My Mother-in-Law and I had a conversation similar to this over Christmas. We were discussing the proposed wall on the southern border, and the migrant caravans headed our way (I am very against Trump’s Wall and she is very concerned with ensuring security). Rather than using accusations of racism, or of being anti-law and anti-security, we recognized that we both wanted border security, and we both felt a need to be charitable to our neighbors, despite having been told otherwise by warring politicians. So we talked about what we could have tried that might have accomplished both goals. We hypothesized about being more pro-active in meeting the caravans on the road, in order to begin pre-screening for asylum before even reaching the border. We agreed on the need for various systems of walls and fences in many areas, and that Border Patrol might know best where to strategically fortify the border. We also agreed that if we had better, more trusting relationships with other countries, we might count on their help in dealing with thousands of people who are desperate to find safer lives for their families.

In the end, we left the conversation understanding each other better and in a more positive light. In fact, neither of us really had to change our beliefs, because both our goals were well-intentioned and worthy. We only had to expand our view a little. Again, it’s not a zero-sum game. In order to have border security, we don’t have abandon charity, and vice-versa.

Update: I came across a radical new border proposal the other day that I love, and that fits perfectly in this idea of creative solutions that work towards our various goals. 28 prominent U.S. scientists and engineers developed the idea of creating an energy corridor along the southern border, in a joint effort with Mexico. This would include wind turbines, water desalinization plants, solar panel fields, etc. in a large, collaborative effort between both countries. In theory, it would provide security — as each facility would need its own security — AND economic growth to both countries, providing jobs and opportunities. Check it out here.
A joint effort with Mexico, an energy corridor along the border would benefit both countries.

This essay got a little longer than I anticipated. Click HERE for part II.