Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Entering the Mêlée With Fists Down and Heart Open

I had an interesting discussion on Facebook this week, an experience I'm sure others have had as well. A friend of a friend and I were having a heated political debate on a thread in which we were both commenting. This person and I volleyed arguments for a few comments, and then he wrote, in reference to the original posting, "I think its [sic] absurd to post political finger-pointing post [sic], then step back and claim that it's just pure information - like the information's neutral or something."

I stopped in my tracks. As a therapist, I am trained to be aware of process as well as content. No longer was the focus on the original posting which we were debating or the ulterior motive of my FB friend who posted it. My focus was now on the process in which this stranger and I were engaging. My fellow debater's accusation brought up an interesting point–Must everything political point the finger at someone or something? Must every political article, video, posting, conversation, piece of information be polarizing? Have we ever been able to talk about politics in this country so that we remain friends at the end of the day? What are we trying to achieve when we talk politics?

One of the first social rules I learned as a young person was the directive "Never talk politics or religion." How interesting! The two things that affect our lives most deeply–our faith and our communal life–are not considered topics safe enough to talk about in civil company. Why?

The etymology of the word "politics" is quite innocuous. It comes from the Greek polītikos, from polītēs, citizen, from polis, city. A political person, then, is a citizen, a resident of the city. Why, then, do we either avoid the topic warily or enter into the fray with both fists raised?

I suspect it is because "the personal is political," as Carol Hanisch wrote in 1969. Our personal lives are intimately tied into the life of the politic. Hannah Arendt wrote, "No civilization would ever have been possible without a framework of stability, to provide the wherein for the flux of change. Foremost among the stabilizing factors, more enduring than customs, manners and traditions, are the legal systems that regulate our life in the world and our daily affairs with each other."

So when we talk about politics, we are talking about the underlying rules, laws, policies, and systems that allow us to live out our best lives, the lives we most desire for ourselves. Or vice versa. We are railing against systems that prevent us from doing so. This seems to be the crux of the matter–the denial of desire, the lack of liberty to live our lives as we see fit. Of course, throw in the tension between the individual and the collective, and there's a grand mêlée. Freud looked closely at this essential question in Civilization and Its Discontents of how one manages to follow the path of the individual spirit while at the same time conforming to the expectations and necessary laws of society. This is an essential question because this is the dynamic that is present in almost every aspect of our lives these days, and was present, I believe, in my Facebook exchange.

The person with whom I debated is a stranger to me, and, after this interaction, he will most likely remain a stranger. I can be rather stubborn in my views. One of which, paradoxically, is–remain flexible in one's views, thus giving some breathing space for dialogue. This person seemed to be rather entrenched in his political views and unwilling to step into the breathing space to see what else might be there, as did I. My second political view I refuse to relinquish is in regards to one of our purposes here on this planet: We are to learn how to live quality lives in community and to assure that this is available to everyone. All of us. Every single human being on this planet. Not a soul left standing outside the gates while the rest of us sit at the banquet table. (Note–my religious views intersect with my political views here.) I don't know if this is the right stance to take or not, but I can't not take it. I feel it is my individual, community, social, human, yes, political obligation to advocate and work for social justice for the global community.

It is a conundrum to say the least. I want to be able to create a safe place for the person with whom I am in dialogue (see The Guest House: A Love Story posting below), which requires compromise and flexibility. I am unwilling to negotiate this belief. Yet this belief that I am unwilling to compromise is one that works toward the safe dialogical space. It is an either/or dichotomy which I'm uncertain how to resolve, though my Facebook friend who hosted the debate thread ended the discussion by engaging in the commenter's process, not his content. In a personal aside to me, she called this Trickster energy–engaging by not engaging. This is also used in aikido, a way to engage by redirecting the attack rather than opposing it head-on. I like that. It is a skill I intend to foster because my inflexibility about the need for flexibility shut down the dialogue between the stranger and me.

Some of the answers may be found here–Fluidity. Non-violence. Compassion. Agreeing to disagree. Breathing space. Authentic dialogue. Acknowledgement of the other's/Other's worldview. And love.

Love. It seems almost too simple, a simplistic solution to a complicated, sometimes violent, issue. I remind us, however, that love is one of the most powerful forces on earth. One of our greatest prophets died because of it. We should not underestimate its strength. In that vein, I end with this lovely quotation by Kelly Oliver:

Love is an ethics of otherness that thrives on the adventure of otherness. This means that love is an ethical and social responsibility to open personal and public place in which otherness and differences can be articulated. Love requires a commitment to the advent and nurturing of difference.


  1. Thank you for your deep thought on the encounter, Robin. These encounters don't happen often but when they do, they leave me flummoxed and weary. I appreciated your entry into the fray, your dignity, and your grace.

  2. Thank you, Joann. It can be exhausting work, can't it? Good to know that we're doing it together.