Monday, March 7, 2011

Walmart still does not allow employees to say ‘Merry Christmas’, priests were arrested for praying during a visit by President Obama, and it was just revealed that Death Panels will exist after all

All of these “facts” were told to me by various relatives during visits over the holidays. They are moderately conservative good people who mean well and were just attempting to inform the main family liberal (i.e. me) about things I may not have been aware of. Quick Internet searches later in the evening showed that none of these were actually true. I chose not to revisit the arguments with them afterwards in an attempt to correct their mistakes based on my research. That seemed secondary to what was important about the conversations.

I am a strong advocate of our need as a society to develop the ability to have reasonable civil conversations about everything important, including politics and religion. These relatives were reaching out to me in a civil manner with some thoughts about these issues. This was a chance for me to model what civil conversations were like, and to practice my ability to respond appropriately. So how did I respond?

Step one: in a perfectly calm voice say “Gee, I haven’t heard about that. Where did you hear that news?” Step two: encourage them to be skeptical about statements they hear that don’t seem quite right. I confess that my calm manner started slipping here. My wife informed me afterwards that my arguments came across as – “How could you possibly believe that such ridiculous things were true? Don’t you ever question things people say that don’t seem quite right?” The problem, outside of my tone, was that these things did seem perfectly right and believable to them. Such statements fit perfectly with how they viewed the world and they had little reason to doubt or question them.

After learning from these first interactions, I adjusted my approach a little the next day when I encountered the claim that medical death panels will be instituted after all. This time I did remain calm and lead them though a little skeptical analysis. “Gee, I haven’t heard about that. Where did you hear that news? Something about it doesn’t sound quite right to me since people are free to purchase any medical service they want to pay for. Hmmm… Maybe the news was that a panel of doctors would decide what procedures some insurance company would be willing to pay for. Does that sound like what might be happening?” We eventually agreed that this was indeed the case, and that this was different from the death panels that they originally feared.

Before leaving on the long trip home, I joked about the conversations and how we were doing well compared to some more dysfunctional families. I thanked them for being willing to open up and have such discussions, how I thought it was important for people to do so, and how I learned something whenever we had such talks. That last statement seemed to make a very good impression with them. Another set of holiday visits successfully navigated. No political opinions were changed, but communication channels were strengthened. That’s all you can hope to do in a short period of time.

I’m very interested in learning about other similar experiences, or in any thoughts people had about other approaches for handling such discussions.

(I originally posted this in the Tikkun Daily Blog)

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