This is the first post in a series called “How to Talk to Strangers and Friends about Politics.” It might also be the last post in the series. As I type this right now, I’m not even sure if I’m going to finish and publish it. I’ve been thinking a lot about the division in our world; the causes of that division, the solutions to that division, and the rules governing the effective use of semicolons. I’m kind of nobody but I’m arrogant enough to think that the things I write might be of use to somebody sometime so here they are.

Lesson 1: People are People

I’m a person. Bret’s a person. You’re a person. That person over there’s a person. And each person deserves to be treated… like a person.

Jemaine Clement (fictional)

People are people. No exceptions. This may seem overly simplistic but it’s often overlooked and you’re probably overlooking it right now. People are poeple. They are not monsters, aliens, or “other” in any way. This includes all people, including and especially the ones you don’t like, the ones you disagree with, the ones who hurt you. This is really good news because people actually have a lot in common with other people and may I remind you that “other people” includes everyone. Republicans, Democrats, saints, sinners, psychopaths, immigrants, criminals. Donald Trump is a person. Hilary Clinton is a person. Nazis are people. The ones who don’t like being called nazis and the ones who actually do like it because they identify with that group and even the German ones from the first half of the 20th century. All still people.

Understanding this and recognizing this and continually reminding yourself of this are foundational to having productive conversations with people you disagree with. Recognize that the person you are talking to is a person. Recognize that the groups of people you are talking about are people. In our country we tend to put ourselves and others in boxes and agree with and defend “our team.” Recognize that the other groups you may be talking about are people. This may include people grouped by political ideals, race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, socioeconomic class, age, or any other attribute.

Groups of People are People

Recognizing that other groups of people are people just like you and me is the first step towards empathizing with and understanding them, but there is another very practical benefit. People are predictable. People are motivated by a small set of human motivations and you’ve probably experienced most of them. People tend to do what they are motivated to do. This removes a lot of the sting of under-considered and possibly bad-faith arguments like:

  • “Democrats hate America and they will do whatever they can to destroy it.”
  • “Trump supporters are racist and they like Trump because he gives them permission to be racist openly.”
  • “Illegal immigrants just want to bring crime to make our country as bad as the ones they left.”

There are two obvious problems with each of these statements. One, they each treat a group of people as a monolith instead of a collection of unique people. Two, they ascribe a single evil motivation to each group. A person can be motivated by evil but it can often be in service of an underlying human motivation that is much easier to empathize with. Criminals may motivated by greed or power or jealousy or hate, but underlying those motivations could be fear, insecurity, or a sense of fairness. Almost everyone thinks they’re the good guy in the story.

Good and bad people

People are people. There are no good people and there are no bad people. First of all, concepts like “virtue” and “evil” do not have universally agreed-upon definitions and so they cannot be used to universally categorize humans as being “good” or “bad.” Even if we did have universal definitions of those concepts, people are more complicated than that. Think about the best thing you’ve ever done. Think about the worst thing you’ve ever done. Both of those deeds were done by the same person. There are many more good and bad deeds that you will yet commit. Recognize that all people in all groups are in the same situation as you. “Okay but what about racist people?” you might ask. “Surely I’m a good person and they’re bad people.” To that I would say, recognize that in a racist’s mind their hatred can come from a good place. They can believe that the hatred they feel and violence they commit is necessary to protect themselves from forces that would erase their identity.

Instead of categorizing groups of people as “good” or “bad,” it can be much more useful to consider what principles each individual holds that guide their decision making and motivate them. It is also very important that you take time to consider what your personal guiding principles are. I plan to write a lot more about guiding principles in future posts.

What if I don’t want to

Look, generalizing and othering groups of people is easy and convenient. It can be a shortcut to a dopamine rush that comes from all your internet friends agreeing with you. It is much more difficult to use empathy, tact and diplomacy to bring people together. Maybe you’re not up to it. Maybe that bit earlier about humanizing racists rubbed you the wrong way. I get that. It wasn’t easy to write. But the path of least resistance leads to fear, anger and violence. Working to spread empathy today can prevent violence tomorrow and it starts with you.