Last week my column, the Lioz Letters, debuted on our Conversation site. I talked about my experience at Politicon, and my efforts to engage people with different perspectives from mine in service of better understanding those points of view. It gave me pause to hear how some conservatives have felt targeted in many areas of their lives because of their beliefs, to the point where they had felt a genuine threat to their livelihoods.
I was happy to get some engagement from readers on both sides of the political spectrum, but that feedback served to illustrate the inherent challenges for an organization that seeks to foster substantive conversations between two sides with a history of contentious interactions.
My column is written from a “blue” perspective. I’ve been a committed progressive for as long as I can remember, and my interactions with conservatives are often filtered through that worldview. My decision to be transparent about my perceptions rubbed some readers the wrong way.
So I began to give some thought to whether this conflict was inevitable. Can we be honest with each other about our feelings while protecting one another from the hurt that this honesty might engender?
One person expressed deep offense that I’d been skeptical of some of the claims of victimhood from the conservatives that I’d met. While I did feel a distinct emotional connection with them, the different ways that progressives and conservatives think about these claims make them more complicated to evaluate.
Conservatives (particularly libertarians who have been ascendant in their influence upon the conservative movement) tend to be very sensitive to the classic questions of liberty of speech, believing that there should be a very high bar used when considering when to restrict that speech. False shouts of “Fire!” in a crowded theater are one thing, but absent such a distinct threat to public safety, many on the right are content to allow nearly any speech in the public square, regardless of how offensive it is to certain groups, for fear of sliding down the classic slippery slope.
Progressives often place more emphasis on the type of harm that may result from so-called hate speech, especially when that speech is likely to encourage those who might take it a step further. Words, in their estimation, have the potential to injure just as do sticks and stones.
When I stated that “I’m highly skeptical of their claims of victimhood,” I was probably expressing myself clumsily. I should have been more careful to communicate that I don’t doubt the degree of pain those on the right have suffered at the hands of social pressures and ostracism, especially within communities that are dominated by progressive voices.
But I also find myself aware, as I think it’s important to be, of what leads to this ostracism—and that is the legitimate pain on the part of those who feel targeted by the statements and policies of some conservatives. These people, who feel victimized themselves, come from many different groups.
Some of this boils down simply to a disconnect in terms of the language that we use. While some might use the words “nationalist” and “patriotic” interchangeably, for others there is a distinctly sinister and threatening overtone to the former that doesn’t exist in the latter. Similarly, while progressives use the word “triggered” to talk about the difficult experience of a sexual assault survivor reliving this sort of scene in literature or cinema, conservatives use it more to talk about an overly sensitive partisan being exposed to an idea that doesn’t align with their views.
When we have difficulty even using language in a similar way, our lack of mutual understanding makes it unsurprising that each side has a tendency to project onto the other’s attitudes a complete lack of sensitivity to our suffering.
I also lost some conservative readers when, while remarking that it saddened me how insulting to the president’s supporters it was, I admitted that I found the giant inflatable Trump baby at the convention to be “pretty funny satire.”
Here again I was open about my progressive viewpoint, and I think it would be disingenuous to deny that I find this sort of humor amusing. But in my writing that paragraph, I actually went through the thought exercise of imagining my emotional reaction to a perverse caricature of President Obama in balloon form, and it was clear to me how much ill will this could create.
I think it’s always a worthwhile exercise for both sides to go through, donning the viewpoint of our opposites, and it helps us to step back from our innate tendencies, and recognize how they can sometimes be unproductive.
This speaks to the challenge not just for a columnist within our Conversation page, but indeed for all of Better Angels. As an organization we encourage our workshop participants to honestly represent their viewpoints, with the promise that those views will be received with empathy and understanding, rather than judgment and contempt. We emphasize that each person’s experiences are their own, and that expressing them doesn’t expose them to the possibility they’ll be denied.
Perhaps in expressing my skepticism of the experiences of those on the right, I missed the point of my own piece. On the other hand, what I consider so important is intent. We all say things less than perfectly sometimes, but if someone approaches a conversation with the aim of growing their own realm of understanding, we should extend them our good faith. We should allow them to say things with which we don’t agree with the assumption that this viewpoint reflects their own life experience, rather than any negative factors, like closed-mindedness or ill intent.
It is my hope that through our work at Better Angels we can develop our abilities to see the best in one another. I’ll certainly be working on this within myself. That approach is key to our ability to resume our national conversation. Let’s make it an honest conversation.