Talking Politics in The Wilderness

I just finished Prof. Brene Brown's Braving the WIldernessand got more out of it than I imagined I would. Her very personal, anecdotal, no-BS approach to human connection vs. tribalism is a great compliment to our own work and probably a good way to reach people who aren't as responsive to ReConsider's brass-tacks take.

I wanted to pass along a bit of what I'd taken away from it. I believe I've become a more compassionate and (thereby) more effective discusser of politics for having read her work.

Lesson 1: You're Probably Dehumanizing People

In the same way that in World War 1, American war propaganda called Germans "The Huns" and pictured them as gorillas in order to dehumanize them, we similarly tend to think of our opposition as less-than-human. Not necessarily to the same degree, but you'll probably agree that we think about and talk about our political opposition as if they're not really complex moral machines, with cares and loves and hurts and families. Of course people in our camp have that nuance and complexity; the other camp does not. Because, of course, only someone without moral complexity could be capable of such stupidity.

When you fall into this trap, you have completely neutralized yourself. You've departed from reality and have no capacity to convince anyone to change their minds about anything. It feels good to dehumanize (and it's very natural), but it makes you politically useless at best. At worst, and quite often, by dehumanizing your political opposition you cause them to entrench themselves more deeply, and ruin the hopes of any reconciliation. Remember that in war, the goal is to literally kill and destroy until the enemy can't continue to fight. You can't kill your way to victory in a democracy, so treating it like a war just won't work.

In "The Wilderness," where you stand alone and with all people at once, of course everyone is a real human. When you're able to see them as such, you understand them better. You'll certainly treat them more decently. Perhaps you might even convince them to change their mind about some stuff. Quick exercise from the book: think of the most wonderful person you know from the other tribe--a friend, a family, or someone you admire in the public sphere who disagrees with you. Got it? Then consider how many other admirable people are in that tribe who you've never met or will ever meet. What is life like when you assume others are real humans rather than charicatures?

Lesson 2: Tribalism Breeds Bullshit

I spoke briefly of this in my most recent post on Trump's scandals. When you've placed your loyalty a tribe, your brain defaults to what is oh-so-gently called "motivated reasoning." Your brain, because it favors a tribe, looks for reasons why that tribe is right. It is trying to prove that the tribe is right, in every instance. You stop trying to look for the truth. In fact, you stop caring about the truth. This is what Brown calls "bullshitting." You're just going to say, or share on social media, whatever supports your tribe, without any scrutiny about its accuracy. 

You probably have countless memories of someone from the Other Tribe on Facebook sharing something that is outrageous, and easily disproven by checking facts. It really damages their reputation with you, doesn't it? In fact, it probably feeds into the narrative you have that the other tribe is full of bullshit.

You probably don't remember as well times that you or your tribe-mates have been called out for similar bullshit. If you're honest with yourself, you'll probably think of some. Yours, of course, are forgivable, explainable, and a rare occurrence within the otherwise-uninterrupted streak of truth that you're blasting. Even so: if you're going to have any credibility with anyone other than fellow fanatics to your cause, you have to police your own bullshit.

In The Wilderness, interrogating the truth comes first. In The Wilderness, you're not loyal to a tribe: you can work with a tribe to get things done when you believe they have the power, the good sense, and the right values to do it. But without that emotional loyalty, you're far more interested in what is true, and your reputation (and inner integrity) will improve for it.

Lesson 3: Focus on Real Connection

When JFK was assassinated, when the Challenger shuttle blew up, when the Twin Towers fell: at those moments, it didn't matter whether you were conservative or liberal. When you're dancing with strangers at your favorite concert, cheering with them at a sports game, or singing at karaoke, it doesn't matter if you're a conservative or a liberal.

These are moments of what Brown calls Shared Joy and Shared Pain. These moments remind us of the intrinsic connection, intrinsic humanness we all have. We quickly forget them, and she discusses at length why that is (and why moments like 9/11 can in the long-term create deeper fissures in our society based on how we react to them).

Hopefully you have those moments of shared joy and shared pain with people. They don't need to be titanic--they can be weddings and funerals, meeting a puppy, mourning a sports defeat. My favorite example from the book was in Harry Potter (the movies): when Dumbledore died, Professor McGonagal raised her wand and light shone forth. And then all the professors and students did the same. If you went to the theater to see it, you might have seen dozens of strangers raising their hands together, weeping, as if they too were holding wands. Moments like these remind us that we are all on the side of light and life, and that when the darkness is all around, we can still stand together.

When moments like these happen, make them a brief meditation: imagine that all these people, who you're having a real human connection with, probably disagree on a lot of very important stuff. Very real stuff. They all have their own reasons for doing so, even if they're wrong. (Maybe some of your reasons are wrong.) Can you maintain the shared sense of connection with them? Can you be with them as part of the light and life inside each of you? If you can, you have left your tribe--you have left behind the idea of tribe. You are in The Wilderness, and you're ready to go be a power of good rather than divisiveness and destruction.


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.