I have learned a lot in my years as a couple’s counselor – and as a husband. Among the most important lessons: When is comes to making things better, the most constructive choices are the ones that tend to your partner.
This is not the norm. Instead, in the typical couples fight, he listens but in a special way, alert to every inaccuracy or unwarranted attack, waiting impatiently for her lips to stop moving so he can renew his attack, augmented of course by the additional ammunition she’s just provided. And, needles to say, she is does the same in reverse. And round and round it goes. And the years go by.
The alternative? Avoid this defend/counter-attack approach and, instead listen; affirm your partner’s feelings; and, then, notice and build on areas of agreement. Doing so, we take leadership in facilitating a return to a calmer, more progressed state where in can sort through our differences in a reasoned way, attending as best we can to the emotional and practical needs of each.
Why I am spelling this out in a Reflection that discusses a different, hopefully more effective approach in politics? Because this perspective is so strikingly absent – and so desperately needed – in this area as well.
Without regard to who we supported, the recent Presidential election deeply unsettled so many of us, like none other in recent memory. And this points to a breakdown in our public conversation – decades in the making – that goes far beyond the personalities and figural issues of this election.
If the goal is to nurture a more constructive politics, one that more effectively moves us toward a more humane, just and equitable world, Radical Decency offers an orienting perspective on what ails us and, in addition, a pathway forward that while not exclusive is, I believe, foundationally important.
That is the subject of this Reflection.
Thinking about Donald and Hillary from a Radical Decency perspective, here’s where I come out.
Donald gets high marks on the 4 values that predominate in the mainstream culture: Compete and win, dominate and control. When is comes to decency’s 7 values, however, the situation is different. He gets a passing grade on “understanding,” given his native shrewdness, and, perhaps, on “fairness” and “justice” in the limited area that encompasses the white, working class constituency he purports to represent. However, he shows virtually no inclination to embrace decency’s other 4 values: Respect, empathy, acceptance, and appreciation.
When is comes to Hillary, things are more complicated. Smart and an enormously hard worker, I give her high grades on understanding. And she has, in many of her activities, demonstrated a sincere interest/inclination toward decency’s other 6 values. But, like Donald, she has also shown a steady, indeed passionate commitment to the culture’s mainstream, compete and win values; a commitment manifest in her zealous pursuit of private wealth and political advancement.
Thus, the crucial question about Hillary is this: What is her priority, decency or conventional success? For me, a fair reading of her history suggests that the mainstream’s compete and win values take precedence. Thus, for example, her:
- Close association with her husband’s politically motivated dismantling of the welfare system and repeal of Glass-Steagall’s financial regulatory protections;
- “Smart politics” vote for the invasion of Iraq; and,
- Failure to take on Wall Street in the recent campaign.
For all of us, Presidential candidates included, the real test of decency comes in those “rubber hits the road” moments when decency’s values conflict with our mainstream ambitions. And by that measure Hillary, in my opinion, falls short.
You may or may not find this analysis persuasive. But the more basic and crucial point is this: This sort of sustained values-based discussion of our candidates is strikingly absent from the dominant political conversation. To the contrary, Donald and Hillary – reflecting a conventional wisdom that has dominated our electoral politics for decades – focused the great majority of their resources on tearing each other down: Lying, bought and sold Hillary vs. an incompetent, corrupt, temperamentally unfit misogynist.
To my mind, fully coming to grips with the striking absence of “values” as a category used to evaluate our potential leaders – and a strategy to correct that – is vitally important if we hope to create a more decent world. Moving the needle toward greater decency, especially at a societal level, is an immensely complicated challenge. We will never make meaningful progress toward that goal if, accepting the invitation of our mainstream politicians, we never even talk about.
Needless to say, a values oriented political conversation would require an enormous shift in our “business as usual” politics. For that reason, the change we seek is unlikely to come from the top since, by the time someone runs for high elective
office, their investment in the mainstream’s compete/win ways is far too high. Thus, the likelihood that, once elected, they will dramatically reorient their priorities, becoming leaders in creating this shift in outlook is surpassingly small.
But below the confusion and fear that our current system so masterfully creates and exploits is this hopeful reality: Most people are fundamentally decent, wanting to love their families and friends and to live in peace. For this reason, the more sensible approach is to focus on the grass roots. Indeed, since most of our elected politicians are not leaders but are, instead, simply polltakers and panderers, a growing public insistence on decency would increasingly be reflected in their behavior as well.
What we need to recognize, however, is that this grass roots approach thoroughly implicates all of us. The “problem,” simply put, is not with some other person or group. We are all very much a part of it.
Why do I say this? Because we all – with the rarest of exceptions – are significantly infected with the culture’s dominant, compete and win mindset. It shows up in our drive for grades and money, in the win-obsessed mindset we bring to the games we watch and play and, as noted earlier, even in the ways that we treat our most intimate partner in life. So, it is not at all surprising that it shows up in the mindset we bring to our political engagements as well.
In that regard, as a Hillary supporter, ask yourself this: Was the great bulk of your emotional energy consumed by your animus toward Donald and, with it, an impatient “paper over the flaws” defense of Hillary? And, if you were a Donald supporter, ask yourself the same question in reverse. Though there are always exceptions, I suspect the great majority of us – me included – would agree that this defend/attack mentality dominated our thoughts and actions. And, viewed from this perspective, the deeper truth about the candidates is that they were simply reflecting – and to their shame as would-be leaders – magnifying a disease that infects most all of us.
So what needs to happen? We need to fundamentally re-think how we engage politically beginning, very fundamentally, with how to talk with one another.
And it is here that the lessons I have learned in my work with couples come to the fore.
In our political engagements as well, we need to wean ourselves from our reflexive defend/counter-attack approach, cultivating instead a more generous mindset in which we see those on the “other side” as people who, like us, are trying to do the right thing in an incredibly complicated world. And, importantly, we need to remember that neither side “owns” decency’s 7 values. Except for the most rabid ideologues (with whom dialogue is not possible in any event), we all, in our way, want to be respectful, empathic, fair, just, and so on.
Steadily cultivating this perspective – and abandoning it only as a last reluctant option – we will then be primed:
- To far more fully listen to the “other” side’s very different perspective, and to share our perspective in a way that, diverging from strident defense, acknowledges our doubts, confusions, and uncertainties as well;
- To notice, affirm and expand areas of agreement including, very importantly, the ways in which decency’s values show up for each of us though often in very different ways; and
- To develop a more nuanced and respectful understanding of differences.
This approach has been thoroughly explored in the work of many fine thinkers including, for example, Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, Philip Lichtenberg’s Encountering Bigotry, and Miki Kashtan’s groundbreaking work with Convergent Facilitation. And, see, Reflections 75 and 76, Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Parts 1 and 2.
Our job is give these ideas the attention they so desperately deserve. And while the work is hard and uncertain, persistence is the key. We need to resist the temptation, when the other person fails to respond in kind, to see him as a jerk; reverting, in that moment, to our old, dismissive, partisan ways. In Gandhi’s words, we need to be the change we hope to create.
Note, finally, this important contextual caveat: Without in any way diminishing the foundational importance of this work, we need to remember that it is not meant to, nor should it, supplant other types of political initiatives. They are many people in the public sphere who are what I call permanently stuck in their indecency. These people can be dangerous and need to be aggressively countered. But if that is all that we do – if we fail to make this values based substrata an explicit, visible, ongoing priority – our efforts to create a better world will, I fear, never sustain themselves or gain lasting momentum.
In closing, I offer an example of the different kind of dialogue that will become with time – it is my hope – our new norm.
The day after the election I had an unexpected conversation with a man in my office waiting room, named Steve. Knowing I was a Hillary supporter, he told me how relieved his was that that “liar” wasn’t going to be President. In response I told him that, while I didn’t agree with the liar label, I did think that his discomfort pointed to something real; that she was calculating, controlled and, at times, slippery with her words.
Steve’s next words were equally partisan: “When Hillary was in office, she sold the government to enrich herself.” Here, too, I disagreed but worked to avoid an impatient dismissive response and/or a pivot to how awful his guy was.
I began instead by saying that, as I saw it, instances of quid quo pros were few or nonexistent. But I then offered this thought: People with power and wealth constantly interact with one another and fully understand that they need each other to get ahead. As a result, people like Hillary (and, implicitly, Donald as well) take care of one another’s needs without every being asked; that for smart, successful players like them no quid quo pros are necessary.
At that point, Steve – in unchartered territory – paused, seeming to digest my unexpected responses. Then, after a brief interlude, he sought me out, saying, “you know, when I comes to guns I, like you, think we need to control who gets them.” My final words, drawn out of me by our surprising sense of connection: “You know, if we had the time, I bet we could come up with a good solution to that problem!”
This was, needless to say, just one small conversation. And other, similar attempts I’ve made with people in the “other” side have quickly deteriorated into the partisan point/counterpoint to which I, too, am so susceptible. But these are the kinds of initiatives we all – Trump and Clinton supporters alike – can and need to take.
Indeed, my most hopeful conversation since the election was with Maureen, a woman I know well, who understands and embodies decency in her in life – and who voted for Trump. She and I agreed that we both hope her greater optimism about Donald’s decency proves to be correct, that we both intend to use decency’s values to measure his Presidency – and that we both look forward to continuing our conversation about our shared political future.