Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Discourse On Discord

Also see this article posted online at its original source: http://www.globalethics.org/newsline/2013/07/15/discourse-on-discord/

Late last Saturday night, the jury in the trial of George Zimmerman returned a not guilty verdict in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

I had ignored the coverage for most of the trial, though it became more difficult as the sides reached their closing arguments. Some radio and TV stations had live coverage at the courthouse and Twitter and blogs were alight with commentary. My daily walking companion, a dear neighbor whose views on most things political and social are diametrically opposed to mine, raised some aspect of the trial in conversation, and I swiftly changed the subject. A high-school classmate posted an inflammatory and factually incorrect note on Facebook and I chose not to engage.

It’s not as if I didn’t have a viewpoint. My opinion in the case was that Trayvon Martin had been grievously wronged — by endemic societal biases, by profiling, by loose gun laws. What that would mean for a verdict, I didn’t know, but I had a persistent feeling of dread throughout the week. I tried to write about the ethics of the case, but didn’t trust the objectivity of my analysis and I eventually cast the work aside. Even now that the verdict is in, I can scarcely bring myself to read about the case or listen to anyone’s reactions to it. This all leads me to ask myself, as I would a client in treatment, “So what is that avoidance about?”

At the risk of coining a new disorder for the mental health diagnostic manual, I think I am suffering from entrenchment fatigue. The causes are easy enough to understand. Local, state and federal governing bodies are mired in such animus that they can’t even agree to meet, much less to act. Around the globe, sectarian and gender violence is on the upswing. Nuanced views are lost in 140-character tweets and viral posts. Homogenized news programming presents the news with the slant its particular viewer demographic prefers.

The symptoms of entrenchment fatigue also are recognizable: ennui, social withdrawal, perceived helplessness, and a penchant for watching old TV reruns or YouTube videos of zany pets. Unfortunately, entrenchment fatigue has serious consequences for individuals, families, and communities. To retreat in the face of strongly held positions (mine or others) may be prudent, but it does not strike me as ethical. It drives us apart and enlarges our differences instead of creating common ground. It organizes our discourse around superficialities, sidelines facts in service of opinion, and marginalizes voices that should be heard.

The strategies for overcoming entrenchment fatigue, particularly around an issue as serious and polarizing as the killing of Trayvon Martin, led me to revisit the literature on moral courage and crucial conversations. I’ve distilled those resources into considerations I must use to get out of the trench and back into the dialogue. Relevant questions and conversations include:

1. Think about how I know what I know.
  • What sources inform my view?
  • Consider the ways they are biased.
  • Acknowledge how my perceptions of my position and others’ are distorted by these sources.
  • Determine and stick to facts
2. Decide what I want to accomplish and with whom.
  • Do I want to create room for an exchange of views?
  • Do I want to change another person’s position?
  • Do I want to stake out my views for distant contacts in the Twittersphere?
  • Different objectives will lead to different strategies. Clarity about what I want to accomplish will help me “keep my eyes on the prize” throughout these conversations. I want to have authentic relationships with my friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues. (Some relationships are more significant and enduring. Overcoming entrenchment with these people seems like it should take priority over doing so with strangers or acquaintances.)
3. What do I not want to have happen?
  • I do not want to lie about my views in order to keep the peace.
  • I do not want to make important relationships contentious.
  • I do not want to be disagreeable in the process of disagreeing.
4. Use effective communications skills.
  • Use active listening and appreciative inquiry.
  • Regulate tone and other nonverbal measures.
  • Avoid inflammatory tactics.
  • Use questions to open the conversation, rather than close it.
  • Beware of negative projections or attributions.
  • Manage powerful emotions.
5.      Find common ground.
  • What do we know about each other already?
  • On what do we agree in general and in this instance?
  • What things inform our differing perspectives?
  • How can we create shared meaning?
Having thought through these steps, with my neighbor and the Trayvon Martin case in mind, I intend to put them into action the next time we take a walk. Admittedly, this is a relatively low-risk conversation. Neither of us has a personal stake in the case or in the outcome of our discussion. We are not required to come to agreement or a plan of action: I am striving for conversation not consensus. At worst it could disrupt a genial relationship; at best it could broaden our perspectives and deepen that friendship. The alternatives — silence or retreat — leave us both vulnerable to corrosive assumptions about the other’s position and motives, and that would seem to be the most troubling outcome of all.