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Walking the Line


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 Braver 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.

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7 thoughts on “Walking the Line”

  1. Randy, I appreciate that you read and have responded to the comments on your previous post. I think you still fail to differentiate between hurt feelings and physical harm. It is certainly disgusting how people can behave – on any side of the political spectrum – but to justify the destruction of people’s livelihoods, reputations or peacful assembly because you do not like their political beliefs or life philosophy is exactly what you glossed over.
    I was very clear in my comment – my business was destroyed by a progressive who enjoined others to ostracize me – not due to the quality of my work or anything I had said – but because I volunteered on a political campaign. I did not bring this up in conversation, it was separate from my work. Five years later – my husband was terminated from a business he had turned around and spent 4 years dedictaed to – it was a non-profit helping people rebuild their lives. One of the board members wanted his job and when he was railing about Trump and expected my husband to agree and he quietly said “I’m a concervative” – well two days later the man began his campaign to undermine and enjoined three employees to create a web of lies. These people knew us and knew if they called in the middle of the night for help – three minutes later we would be on our way – yet envy – selfishness and virtue signaling over something having nothing to do with the mission of the organization nearly bankrupted our family and sadly enough – the egoism of our virtue signaler has also impacted the organization – which is no on a downward trajectory. The support of a candidate or politician that is of a different party or belief system than my neighbors or business associates does not justify in any way shape or form their effort to purposefully destroy my ability to earn an income or live in peace in my neighborhood. The fact that people in the past the same color as me did awful things does not make me culpable – to believe so and treat me as if I am guilty of others sins is called racism.

    1. Lisa, thanks for continuing to read, and for continuing to share your story. The harm you’ve endured sounds extreme, and even the type of thing that might spur a lawsuit. I would never assert that the type of harm you’ve experienced isn’t entirely uncalled for, and I believe that I’ve said as much in my writing. What I think is important to recognize is that type of harm doesn’t necessarily indicate degree. Physical harm isn’t always more violent than psychic harm. If I punch someone in the arm, I wouldn’t call it worse than terrorizing someone with words to induce fear. What may appear to be someone else’s hurt feelings, may in fact be their severe emotional distress. Hopefully together we can de-escalate the cycle of hurt on both sides, believing each other when we talk about the harm we’ve endured, and refusing to respond to that harm in kind.

  2. Mr. Lios,

    I was one of those who criticized your bias in the previous piece. In this article, you seem to defend your bias with a defense of transparency. From that defense, I cannot tell if you were offering an apology or a rationalization for your article, or perhaps saying that you were offended that others were judging you too harshly for just being honest.
    Yes, you were honest that you thought the inflatable Trump doll was funny. That said, the intent was clear – to make fun of the President, and, in turn, those who voted for him. The doll was not a conversation builder; it was a conversation stopper. After all, what can or should be the conversation from a “red” say to a “blue” who thinks the doll is funny?
    I live in a town where no one publicly acknowledges being a Trump supporter, in spite of the fact that he is our president, and barring some catastrophe will be for the next two years. To do so brings scorn, disdain, and ridicule from the very persons who claim to be open-minded. I try to stay out of all conversations that might be construed as being pro-Trump. I don’t need a Scarlet T.

    1. David, thanks for your thoughts. Yes, I think the inflatable Trump baby is good satire. Generally it’s much better policy to address the arguments or actions of a figure than their personal characteristics, but I would argue that in this case the satire is entirely appropriate. As I stated in the first piece, the Trump baby “encapsulates his thin skin and lack of maturity and focus,” and these are all traits that have directly and negatively impacted his ability to be an effective leader. Satirists come from a long tradition within our democracy, and this is a vital role, giving voice to those who may not normally have as much ability to speak truth to power. As long as they’re aiming their scorn at the legitimate and controllable faults of those they mock, I consider their message to actually be productive.

      And my last name is Lioz. Thanks.

  3. I would think one of one’s braver angels would be being open minded, at least striving to be as open minded as possible. One can have a strong opinion but at least I would think they would be open to other views. Here we have one of the leaders of the movement to announce themselves as a committed progressive. What does committed mean? It is enough to question what does progressive mean. I wish Randy and the other proclaimed progressives would explain how they fit themselves within this classification. Is it a test they take and if they score like over a certain amount points, then they call themselves progressives. I would ask these same questions of others who announce themselves as conservatives and true conservatives–like what makes the difference between a true conservative and just a plain old run of the mill conservative. And then on top of it, we have committed. Does this mean hell or high water. Over my dead body, I will always comply with whatever allows me to become one of those. So my question is just what gets one into heaven so to speak. What qualifies one as a progressive. If it just giving oneself a label, then are we not all progressives. Are we not all for progress. So Randy my 2 questions: 1. What in particular makes you a progressive. 2. What do you mean by committed? Hopefully, the latter use of that word is just hyperbole. Seems a commitment to always be one would be quite polarizing contrary to the group’s stated objective.

  4. Trump baby “encapsulates his thin skin and lack of maturity and focus,” and these are all traits that have directly and negatively impacted his ability to be an effective leader.

    Quite opinionated: Where is your “I” statement. And where is the satire in the Trump baby. I will use the I statement. To me it seems the baby and your support is not satire but just a form of Trump like insulating polarization. To me, my impression is you are engaged in the very thing you criticize. Maybe look at the “stick in your eye”, so it seems to be. Review the braver angels game plan.

  5. Hi Kelm, thanks for your input. With regard to your first comment, here are my answers: What I believe makes me a progressive is that I hope we can continue to make progress in creating a more inclusive nation and world, which treats every person as worthy of the same rights and responsibilities. We can see that the road of progress is still very much ahead of us. While we’ve codified many rights for more and more people, with the last major expansion being the right to have same-sex marriages fully recognized. But it’s clear that the road ahead may be rocky for gender non-binary people, and we’re clearly still fighting for racial equality, not just in laws, but within hearts (see my latest column about PHRE).

    And I’m fully committed to this idea. I don’t foresee much that could change my mind that progress towards fully universal human rights is a worthy goal. My commitment does not necessarily extend to specific policy goals. After all, I remember a time that I, like many liberals, thought gay civil unions were just fine as a substitute for marriage. I anticipate other areas in which I’ll evolve, and I include in that areas where my views could come to look more like those of conservatives.

    As for the Trump baby, I’m completely comfortable with my statement: “I actually think it’s pretty funny satire, and encapsulates his thin skin and lack of maturity and focus, but I can imagine how insulting it must be to someone who takes their leader seriously.” It’s certainly an “I” statement, it addresses what has informed my opinion that it’s accurate satire (Trump’s constant insistence that he’s being treated unfairly, his immature name-calling, and his famous refusal to read briefings of more than a page), and also leaves room for my understanding that in this situation it steps over the line.

    I appreciate you also expressing your feelings with an “I” statement, that you believe it’s “Trump-like insulating polarization”. I was definitely trying to express my empathy with your feelings with the final part of my statement. I feel that I can do that at the same time that I express myself honestly about the president’s character. If I didn’t, what would be the point of us talking? You wouldn’t learn anything about me or my views. And us learning about each other’s views and how they came to be is the exact point of Braver Angels. I would love for you to come on board with that game plan.

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