Here’s a very small thing I’m thankful for on this Thanksgiving eve—unless my eyes deceive me, I’ve seen fewer examples of a genre of article that used to be popular some years back. You might recall the type: They’d have titles like “A Guide to Surviving Obamacare Debates at Thanksgiving” or (less subtly) “The 5 Most Insane Obamacare Talking Points You Can Expect to Hear From Your Crazy Uncle This Week,” and they’d prep you for family gatherings like you were a politician prepping for a debate.
Why did these stories start to fade? Perhaps because they just don’t reflect reality. The vast majority of Americans don’t have disruptive debates about politics during the holidays. In fact, lots of folks I know work mightily to make sure they don’t talk politics when the turkey is on the table, and as politics has gotten more polarized, they work even harder to avoid the subject.
Good. The Book of Ecclesiastes famously says, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” and it notes that there is a time for silence and a time for speech. A person is not a “coward” or in a state of surrender if they choose to spend the holidays simply loving their family and save the debates for a different date.
We also can’t kid ourselves. In some families and friendships, the holidays might represent a form of truce in a longer, painful partisan conflict—a relational version of the famous Christmas Truce of 1914. Hostilities are likely to resume. And so this newsletter is about arguments and how I’ve changed the way I think about disagreements. It's about connecting with people, including most especially the people I love.
I’ll share with you two truths that have deeply shaped my thinking. First, in extraordinarily partisan times individuals experience disagreement itself as an insult or an attack. In other words, people don’t distinguish between an attack on an idea and an attack on the individual.
This isn’t new. I distinctly remember a 2006 gathering with a number of America’s most influential pastors and Christian thought leaders, and they were all noticing the same thing. As our politics grew more intense, the mere fact of political disagreement itself was fracturing friendships. Political agreement was a precondition for a relationship. Why? Because disagreement was experienced in a profoundly personal way.
When I was researching my book about American divisions and the potential threat of a national divorce, an expert on civil conflict in the developing world told me that a deeply partisan person often has a physiological reaction not just to negative arguments, but to negative facts. They literally feel the threat to their worldview.
Of course all this makes sense. When was the last time you received truly bad news? Was it merely abstract to you, or did you feel it in your body? And the deeper the importance, the more profound the physical effect. How many of us have gotten news so bad that we literally felt nauseated?
Second, this means that the way to a person’s head is most often through their heart. If you’ve never heard Jonathan Haidt’s elephant-and-rider analogy about persuasion, I’d urge you to stop reading, click the link, and listen now. It only takes 10 minutes. If you don’t have that much time, here’s the short version—think of the rider as your rational mind and the elephant as everything else about you, “the automatic processes, the 99 percent of what’s going on in your mind that you’re not aware of.”
Most of us spend our time trying to reach the rider. This is us forwarding fact-checks, arguing about the integrity of Dominion voting machines, or debating the evidence in the Rittenhouse trial. But as Haidt notes, if the elephant doesn’t want to move, then no rider in the world can force him into motion. The elephant simply overpowers the rider.
This makes instinctive sense to people in the persuasion business. During my litigation days, when I made a case to a judge or a jury, I viewed my primary task as an advocate as getting the judge or jury to want to rule for my client. I wanted the law to support their inclinations, not defy their desires.
So here’s what’s really going on. When you argue politics with a person, you’re often not simply asking them to change their mind, you’re often asking them to change their identity. You’re asking them to possibly lose their community and forfeit friendships. You’re sometimes asking them to shift the very sense of purpose that has defined their life.
And don’t think for a moment that you’re the unique rider who has mastered your elephant. Part of my own life’s journey has been the process of discovering that some of my “beliefs” were mainly intellectual and emotional habits, and I often had strongly held opinions without even knowing what I didn’t know.
Thus one can see the profound truth in the prophet Micah’s famous admonition to not just “love kindness” but to also “walk humbly with your God.” We’re imperfect people in relationships with imperfect people. Mercy should be mandatory.
I’ll close with a quick story. There was a time after I returned home from my deployment to Iraq that I struggled with some of my closest friendships. We had inexplicable conflicts, and I remember complaining to my wife, “Why is it so easy to talk to the guys I served with and so much harder to talk to everyone else?”
I think I wanted her to say something about my “band of brothers” or something that made me feel good about myself. Instead she said, “When I hear you talk to the guys from Iraq, I have no doubt you love and respect them. I don’t hear the same thing when you talk to friends here at home.”
The problem was me, of course. This sounds painfully simple, but relationships are simply different when you lead with love and respect. None of this means you don’t deal with profoundly important issues. In fact, in the same verse where Micah tells us to “walk humbly,” he also demands that we “do justice.”
That’s our complex task in a contentious time. Save the debate for days when turkey isn’t on the table, but when disagreement comes, understand that we mainly speak to the heart, not the head, that our own hearts need work, and that arguments drained of affection aren’t just experienced as an attack—they can disrupt and destroy the relationships that mean the most.
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One last note: This is the final Third Rail newsletter before The Atlantic paywall comes thundering down, closing with all the finality of the shield doors on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. To continue receiving this newsletter, please subscribe here, or you might share in Chewbacca’s famous lament: