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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

I created the Facebook page Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society in July 2018. It was an online offshoot of a small in-person group of people from different ideological and partisan backgrounds. I had spent the previous year writing daily emails to my congressional representative, Republican Bob Goodlatte, and publishing them at my blog Dear Bob. It was a very one-sided conversation and so a kind of political performance art. I was craving actual conversation. But trying to accomplish online what RCDS was accomplishing in-person was at best difficult. It’s an understatement to say the internet doesn’t foster thoughtful, open-minded discussion. Oddly, beers help. And bar snacks. And the effort of planning and physically going somewhere to meet other people fact to face, rather than dashing off a snarky comment in a Facebook thread while multi-tasking at your desk.

Results have been endlessly mixed. A couple of Democrats I encouraged to join in the early days of the page dropped out because they said it made them uncomfortable watching me try to interact with people who were not onboard with the whole civility thing. It was like witnessing an abusive relationship, they said. It’s gotten better. The page has grown to include over two hundred people. About a third actively participate, probably another third are active readers, and I’m guessing the other third have wandered off to other Internet fields.

I have no idea how the ideological census breaks down, but there’s plenty of strong opinions coming from both sides of the divide. I keep spending a lot of time trying to redirect “conversation” in more productive directions, pointing out that maybe certain posts and comments aren’t the most effective way to invite engagement. There’s a slow but constant flow of new members, some who arrive ready to participate productively, and some who seem weirdly hostile to the purpose of the page. I admonish both progressives and conservatives, and both progressives and conservatives have accused me of being unfairly one-sided.

I’ve also found that if I engage long enough and sincerely enough with an entrenched conservative, they’ll usually come around to seeing me as a reasonable and well-intentioned guy who they can talk to without making generalized attacks. They still think I’m wrong about most political issues, but merely wrong, not inherently bad. Unlike my Dear Bob blog, the RCDS page has been extremely two-sided, but there’s still been a kind of political performance quality to it. Rather than achieving and maintaining a goal of civil discourse, there might be something useful about watching some guy working again and again to achieve it. That process may be more important than the product. Or at least that’s what I’ve told myself again and again. On good days I sincerely believed it.

With my sabbatical over and a challenging semester starting with the pandemic and my vice-chairing my department, I’m taking a breather from RCDS. Whatever the results and its ever-quixotic goals, I have learned a few things in the process. Here’s my work-in-progress advice list for engaging with folks who don’t vote like you:

  1. Be respectful. Not just of each other, but of each other’s points of view. Don’t be disrespectful of the elected officials each supports.
  2. A debate is just a polite fistfight. Conversation requires recognizing that your current opinion might not be entirely right and is almost certainly incomplete.
  3. If you want to express an opinion, express it in a way that invites discussion with someone who doesn’t already agree with it.
  4. If you criticize a public figure, keep your focus targeted (so not a general desire to criticize them) and principled (would you criticize someone you support for the same behavior?).
  5. Ask yourself: is your aim to complain or persuade?
  6. Facts help. No fact-check is perfect, but they promote the right principle. If you make a claim, support it with a well-vetted source of verifiable information.
  7. Most sources have some bias, but some have lots. It helps to draw from a centrist range.
  8. Op-eds are generally a bad idea. Too many present an intentionally lopsided selection of misleading facts designed to create an emotional impression that confirms a target audience’s political preferences. It’s better to chew your own food.
  9. Memes are generally a terrible idea. Too many present an absurdly lopsided creation of false information designed to manipulate a target audience’s feelings of righteous outrage. Don’t be a puppet.
  10. Beware your own brain. It came hard-wired for verification bias (ignoring things that don’t support your opinion) and cherry-picking (noticing only things that do support your opinion).
  11. Beware your own environment: consuming a steady diet of lopsided political news and entertainment encourages blindness to your own blindnesses.
  12. Beware your own emotions. Your political beliefs weren’t born from objective contemplation. They also satisfy some emotionally-driven instincts. You might want to figure out what those are.
  13. When you talk to people who share your political opinions, weaknesses in logic go unnoticed, assumptions look like self-evident facts, and people who don’t agree are easily stereotyped, dehumanized, and demonized.
  14. Talking only to people who share your political opinions promotes self-righteous contempt towards those who don’t. Every horrible thing you believe about them they believe about you. Every passionate insult you express about them they express about you. Your moral superiority is a self-evident fact. Their moral superiority is a self-evident fact.
  15. Take a leap of faith: no matter how passionately you disagree with someone, assume they are a good person trying to do good.
  16. If you think their behavior is bad, not engaging with them makes their behavior worse. Allowing them to believe that people like you are bad strengthens their misperception.
  17. Start a conversation by finding something you agree about.
  18. Start a conversation by showing you understand and respect an opposing viewpoint even though you don’t agree with it.
  19. Start a conversation by acknowledging weaknesses in your view even though you feel the strengths outweigh them.
  20. Start a conversation by citing people and sources the other person admires.
  21. Start a conversation by asking a sincere question. What do you wish you understood better about those you disagree with? Often the answer reveals a false assumption in the question, but you can’t discover that until you ask it.
  22. Some approaches that don’t work: insults, attacks, sarcasm, exaggerations, generalizations.
  23. Don’t confuse politeness and civility. You can be perfectly polite and entirely uncivil. Politeness is a surface behavior. Civility is a deep commitment.
  24. Self-righteousness is an addictively and destructively euphoric drug. Civility is its hard-to-maintain and constructively boring treatment. Expect relapses. Commit to recovery.
  25. The goal is lofty: bridge the political divide by building trust between people with different ideological reflexes and partisan backgrounds. We’re not at war. We’re neighbors and family.
  26. Progressives and conservatives working together doesn’t make them moderates. It makes them conservatives willing to work with progressives and progressive willing to work with conservatives.
  27. Finding common ground doesn’t mean sacrificing core beliefs. Differentiate between what you need and what you want. Give others what they need, even if it violates what you want. Expect to get what you need, even if it violates what they want.
  28. Compromise is the defining principle of democracy.

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