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Speak their language

| Monday, August 24, 2020

You might have taken Spanish, French, Arabic or Chinese at some point in your life in order to be able to communicate with people from other countries when necessary. But what about people from your own?  

When talking politics with someone who has different views than you, you might rattle off your side’s go-to talking points and then walk away feeling accomplished. But did you get the other person to soften their stance at all and come around to your view? Is your goal to shout opponents down or to get through to them and turn them into teammates? Sometimes it’s satisfying to scream at the sky (we do it once a semester outside of Hes), but it’s never productive. If you want to convince others to adopt your view, you must frame it in a way they can understand. You need to speak their language. 

You might feel like your point is so obvious that you can’t comprehend how the other person doesn’t agree with it. But this is because it’s in your native language. Perhaps you were raised by two die-hard Democrats who have proudly voted Blue in every election since they turned eighteen, and wonder how there could be any hesitation about voting for former Vice President Biden this November. Yet the person with whom you’re talking politics might have grown up in a big military family of devout Evangelical Christians and believe that the best government is that which governs least. The liberal ideology might not be second nature to this individual in the same way it is to you. 

When you use your own worldview to try to communicate with people who have a different one, you’re speaking to them in a foreign language. No matter how loudly you speak or how many times you repeat yourself, they won’t understand you. It’s time to translate.

If you lean left and want to convince a conservative that parietals should be eliminated, an effective argument might be that college students, being adults, deserve the greatest scope of personal liberty possible, and the administration should generally stay out of their personal lives. This includes the right to associate with whomever at whatever time.

You probably wouldn’t have much success with the conservative crowd if you argued that parietals are unfitting because gender is non-binary. If you’re a conservative and want to convince a liberal or leftist that parietals are a good institution, you might note that parietals can help prevent sexual assault. You probably wouldn’t be very convincing if you argued that parietals should remain in place because you personally are Catholic and don’t approve of sex before marriage. 

When you want to convince someone of your view, you should appeal to their own values, placing it in a framework that is familiar to them. You might have high hopes that communism can be executed successfully in America, but you may be speaking with someone whose ancestors were oppressed by a Communist regime. You might have been able to pull yourself out of poverty by your bootstraps, but you may be speaking with someone who works two grueling minimum wage jobs, yet can’t pay the bills and feels like “the system” in America hasn’t worked for her. 

You must also approach the discussion with a non-confrontational tone. If you enter a conversation with the attitude that you stand on morally superior ground, you can’t expect your listener to be receptive of your ideas. People become defensive when they feel attacked. We must show others that we want to understand them, not defeat them. When you disagree with someone, I urge you to assume that they’re not coming from a malicious or an uninformed place, but simply a different place — one that might not be so far from your own.

Rather than assuming conservatives are automatically hateful and ignorant, or that liberals are naive and unpatriotic, give them the benefit of the doubt that their intentions are good, and they might surprise you. You might find that your uncle who constantly retorts that, “All lives matter,” in response to the phrase “Black lives matter,” actually supports criminal justice reform because he is disturbed by government infringement on people’s rights to life and liberty through police brutality and mass incarceration. 

I find myself in a fortunate position when it comes to talking politics. Like the middle part of a Venn diagram, I’ve been able to experience both circles. My dad, though he does have particular political views — and strong ones, at that — has always encouraged me to make up my own mind about things, and my mom lets me think out loud to her about my stances on hot-button issues of the day. So my views have developed and evolved pretty independently, without any predetermined loyalty.

Beyond that, I come from an extended family split fairly evenly along political lines. I have aunts and uncles on both the right and left who are some of the most wonderful people in the world to me. No matter what connotations their political identities might carry, I have seen firsthand that they all love their families, they seek justice and peace and they want good things for the people around them. 

This isn’t a push to accept all political and moral views as equally valid and good. There are not always “very fine people on both sidesof an issue. Some views are indisputably immoral and don’t deserve any respect whatsoever. I am urging you to promote your particular views, but with the aim of constructiveness. If you speak solely in your own language, the only people who will understand you are already on your side. 

Sure, sometimes it’s nice to talk politics with people who affirm our own views so that we can feel like we’re on the “right” side. But if we actually care to change minds and spread our positions to others — which is key to achieving any political progress — we need to speak to them on their terms, invoking their own reasoning and values to frame our positions. This way, we give them an opening to break with their party’s platform on a particular issue and come to support some of the same things we do.

When you find yourself speaking to someone who doesn’t understand you, don’t raise your voice. Speak their language.

Eva Analitis is a junior in Lyons Hall majoring in political science and pre-health. If you see her around campus, don’t be afraid to whisk her off for an impromptu philosophical discussion. Otherwise, you can reach her at [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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