Recently, I commented on a post from a friend who has been posting a lot about the children who are protesting for gun-control legislation. I am troubled by his posts and many others communications of this same type all across the internet and on television because they are trying to win an argument by attacking a person, a group of people, or an organization.
The post said: Obama was President during 8 school shootings. Why did they wait til now to protest? (The subtext of the post was to call the protesters hypocrites)
I commented that this was not an honest question. That this was an assertion, an opinion, an accusation. I asked, What was the purpose of making this assertion?
No one actually answered this question. But I already knew its purpose. It was to discredit and to demean people who were saying something he didn’t like and who didn’t agree with him. It was not only to make what they were doing seem wrong, it was to condemn them as people. It was a verbal attack.
These attacks take the form of criticism or condemnation. Criticism is a communication that asserts that the behavior of the person is wrong, such as ‘this post is stupid’. A condemnation is directed at the person to assert that the person is bad, such as ‘you are stupid for posting this’. My point is not that criticism and condemnation are ‘wrong’ or that there is anything wrong with the people who do it. They are not bad people. My point is how unbelievably ineffective criticism or condemnation is in supporting true communication or in solving problems.
Strangely, most people believe that criticism and condemnation are communication. But true communication is intended to help with understanding. Criticism and condemnation are about hurting, silencing, weakening or annihilating an opponent, an enemy. The belief is that if you can weaken your opponent, then you can win and get your way. This may even work sometimes. But the problem is that the attack makes your opponent feel hurt, wounded and angry. If you do win and get your way, they often harbor seething resentment. They may go quiet for awhile, but they will gather their resources and their strength and they will likely come back and attack you and weaken you and eventually defeat you. And, then you feel hurt and angry and seethe. And this goes on and on.
So much of what we see in the world right now is based on this dynamic. It continues because of those temporary gains where we think we won this one. Someone who criticized and condemned us, someone who silenced our voices, someone who took advantage or didn’t care about our point of view or abused their power or position or their authority was finally taken down and was replaced by another voice and another point-of-view that we like better. A voice that agrees with how we see the world. We think that what was ‘right’ finally won out. Those people who were ousted were despicable and we believe that they are getting just what they deserve. We don’t care what happens to them.
But, what we often don’t notice is that, we used the very same tactics to get our win. We are doing the same thing to silence them as they did to us. Take for example the case of the student protester David Hogg. The people fighting to protect the right of gun ownership see this teenage protester as a bully. Hogg has found people to blame and criticize and condemn. He has lodged attacks against them. He blames the NRA and the politicians to whom they donate for the tragedy that he and classmates endured.
Those on the side of pro gun-control legislation sympathize with David. They feel compassion for the terrible tragedy and the painful experience that David and his classmates went through. Of course, many pro-gun ownership people feel this, too. David’s anger and outrage are understandable. It’s part of the human experience to lash out. It’s understandable why these children want change. However, those who want gun-control see his attacks on the NRA and politicians who took their donations as justified. These people deserve the attacks. They are the enemy and they need to be weakened and silenced. Their reign of tyranny must come to an end.
And when those aligned with the NRA feel attacked and defend themselves and then finally respond with attacks against David, those who align with David are shocked and outraged. They ask themselves ‘How can those gun-lovers attack someone who has been through such a terrible tragedy? How can they be so heartless and cruel?’
And it is cruel. And it does close off our hearts. It is cruel because these attacking words deepen a divide in our humanity. The damage to our hearts is felt by all who participate in this war of words. Both sides are weakened. Temporary and tenuous wins are coming at an immense cost, but strangely, we are more than willing to pay it.
So I decided to see if there was any way that I could help my friend who was participating in this war see this cost. However, I found that it was really hard to make my argument because everyone who responded to my comments thought I was arguing for gun-control. They lumped me in with various groups and called those groups names. They criticized my behavior and what I saying. It was clear that I was perceived as an interloper on their territory and they were doing everything in their power to let me know that I was not welcome there. They were clear that my thoughts, my voice, my perspective and my person were unwelcome.
Some of the people who responded engaged with me for awhile. I simply ignored any criticism or condemnation toward me or any of the groups or people they were upset with. I did this because I know to defend against these attacks would weaken me and close my heart. I know that to engage in this war of words simply creates noise that obscures my true communication. So instead, I would ask questions or I would make arguments about why this form of communication does not work.
Some people got frustrated with me and retreated. Some stayed engaged for quite some time. Occasionally, I could tell that a few took things that I said were taken as a criticism and people were feeling defensive. I would try to assure them that it was not my intent to judge them or criticize them, I simply wanted them to consider if it was really working for them. Did it help them get what they really wanted?
One man became emotional and shared that he had used a gun against someone who had invaded his home. That he needed a gun to protect himself and his family. I shared that I could understand why he felt so deeply about gun ownership. I suggested that his story was compelling. People might listen if he spoke from his heart. I don’t think I changed his mind, but we ended on a friendly note. We discovered that we both love our families and share of love of dogs. I felt honored that he shared with me what was in his heart.
And just as I was feeling pretty good about that exchange someone else jumped on and called me ‘delusional’ for thinking that Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer would respond to my new friend’s story. Maybe he is right about that, I don’t know. But it occurred to me that a conversation on Facebook is not about convincing a politician of anything. So I pointed out that I doubted either Nancy or Chuck were on my friend’s Facebook feed and since they weren’t who were these type of posts directed to. Who did he hoped saw them? What did he want them to do?
Then more argument. He went back through other comments I had made and looked for openings. Places to attack. He called me a ‘gun-hater’ and lumped me in with those other ‘gun-haters’ and told me what was wrong with me and them. So I asked him what made him think I was a gun-hater? I suggested that he re-read my comments and see any place where I said that I was in favor of gun-control. I asked him to examine why he thought I was his enemy. I suggested that he was seeing an enemy where there wasn’t one.
Quiet for a bit.
Then a question. He pointed out that he had asked me what I thought was an ideal solution to the gun issue and I hadn’t responded. That was true. I had avoided getting into that debate because that wasn’t the point I was making. I hadn’t noticed the question. I apologized to him that I had not answered his question. I told him that I didn’t have an ideal outcome. He attacked my behavior for weighing in on the subject when I didn’t even have a position.
Again, I ignored the criticism and I restated that my concern was not about the subject matter but about the way in which we argue and its effectiveness. I included an example that illustrated the problem and gave an alternative approach. It was an example of true communication. The subject for the example was around resolving an argument about how best to fold a towel. He told me my example was stupid because there was no constitutional amendment on how to fold a towel.
This time I called him on the use of the term stupid. I said that his intent was to demean and degrade me by calling me stupid. He replied that he didn’t call me stupid, he said my example was stupid. A criticism rather than a condemnation. While I would agree that one is slightly more attacking than the other, both are still attacks. But I let that one pass.
Instead, I continued to practice true communication. I replied that I had heard what he has been saying. That I heard that gun-ownership was an important right to him. That I heard that he believed that it protected the people from government abuse of power. I told him that I heard he believed that it was a fundamental right that was worth defending. Then I said that his communication to me was that he did not want to consider my perspective. That he did not want to listen to what I had to say. I told him that it was also his right to not listen to me. That my only point was, How is that working for you? Is it helping you get what you want?
Then he told me that he would actually like to find a compromise but that Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi would not listen. His perspective was that Trump and the Republican Congress were ready to make compromise but that the Democrats were holding a hard line that gave them no choice but to fight.
I heard the resignation that no other options were possible. I certainly understood the perspective because both sides feel this way. They are stuck, they are entrenched, they are battle weary. I thanked this man for conversing with me and considering my point of view. He replied by saying that he actually agrees with me and wishes it could be different, too.
A little bit later he came back and asked, if I wanted to turn down the rhetoric why I didn’t say the things that I had been saying to him to David Hogg. I replied that I don’t know David. But that I do say these same things to my ‘liberal’ friends who criticize and condemn people on Facebook. I told him that they didn’t like it when I said these things to them either. I told him that they told me the same thing that he told me. They say that they are forced into doing this from the other side. They want compromise but the other side won’t listen. They don’t see a choice, either.
In his final reply to me, I could sense that he had a glimpse of the problem I was talking about. But he renewed his claim that there was no choice but to fight. I felt his passion and commitment for his cause. I knew he was dedicated and would not be giving up.
I admire that.
But I disagree that there is no choice but to war with each other. There is a choice. It is one each of can make. It may not change government or the outcomes of legislation anytime in the near future. But it can change the nature of how we relate and communicate to one another. We can listen, we can seek to understand and really hear each other. We can show respect. It starts with these little conversations. With even just one person willing to let the criticism and condemnation pass by and keep asking questions.
It may be only little inroads. There may only be little glimpses of another point-of-view. But with each glimmer it might just bring us a little closer together. It might just make each of us a little stronger. It might just open up our hearts a little more. And with each step, we might just create a better tomorrow together.