Dear drama observers,
I ran an errand this week and was concerned about getting back to my office in time for a 9:30 appointment. What was left of Hurricane Irma was making its way through Nashville so the streets were all wet and ponded.
I exited the business establishment and had to cross a lane in the parking lot to get over to my car. As I stepped out into the street, a car was coming and the driver nicely stopped to let me cross. Whenever I’m the stopping driver, I always hate it when the inconsiderate pedestrian decides to casually stroll at the speed of groomsman in a wedding processional. That’s so irritating, so I always try to cross as quickly as possible out of courtesy to the driver.
But as I picked up my pace, my feet slipped on the painted stripe in the middle of the lane and I sprawled unceremoniously onto the wet and ponded pavement. It was an ugly sight, the stuff of blooper films. Bob Saget material. Most everything on me was now wet. The elbows of my shirt were wet, my pants were wet and, well, the garments one wears under one’s pants were also wet (I’m trying to be tasteful here. This is a family letter, after all).
A very nice gentleman rushed up behind me and said, “Are you OK?” to which I replied, “Yeah, I’m fine. The only thing hurt is my pride.”
Which brings me to one of my points in today’s letter. People hate losing face. Disagreements, on both personal and public levels, are basically contests to determine who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s a feature of human nature to safeguard rightness and eschew wrongness. People don’t like the face-losing experience of wrongness any more than I liked being a fallen and wet public spectacle.
Disagreements have numerous solutions options some of which are more preferable than others. On one end are the win-win resolutions. If you and I have a dispute and achieve a win-win resolution, you’re happy and I’m happy. We both get everything we want. Neither of us loses face and has to admit wrongness—which is why we’re so happy. Wouldn’t it be great if all disputes could be settled that way?
On the other end is the least preferable solution option—the impasse. We’ve aired our differences and despite our best efforts, we still don’t see eye to eye. I think I’m right and you’re wrong. You think you’re right and I’m wrong. We’re stuck. We’re at an impasse. So, what do we do now?
There’s a healthy way to handle the impasse but before I get to that, let me describe the less healthy, more commonly-observed way it gets handled. To maintain rightness, most impasse participants re-double their efforts to establish the other’s wrongness.
This happens in personal relationships but it shows up most vividly in the realm of politics. There are some died-in-the-wool political middle-of-the-roaders but most people, it would seem, align themselves with one side of the political spectrum or the other. They’ve planted their flag atop a political hill and will vigorously defend the rightness of that territory. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed, it’s a healthy thing to know what you believe and to advocate strongly for those ideas.
The problem comes when you’re in a relationship with someone who’ll die defending the other hill. They have strongly-held political opinions that differ from yours. Politically, you’re at an impasse. How can you get along with such a person?
The most common answer to that question these days is to say you can’t. In fact, why would you even want to? The thing to do, instead, is to demonize your opponent—to establish your rightness by making a case for his wrongness.
From the platforms provided by 24-7 cable and social media, people swing their cudgels at those on the other side of the political divide. They call them names. They ridicule them. They question their intelligence. They attribute to their opponents sinister motivations and then attack them for having those motivations. They overstate their shortcomings. They make up shortcomings that don’t exist. Anything to win. In countless ways, they put those “others” down in order to lift themselves up.
And, by the way, isn’t that what most of us did in the third grade? It is but, sadly, some people never grow up in this area. They’ve become chronological adults using developmentally childish methods. Reasoned political discussions have given way to third grade playground tussles.
So, what’s the healthy way to handle an impasse? Here’s the short answer. By agreeing to disagree—agreeably. That’s a phrase that gets thrown around blithely as when someone says at the end of a spat, “Oh well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.” In that sense, it’s more of a conversation stopper than a mutually arrived at way of settling a dispute.
Here are some features of a well-put-together agreement to disagree.
- We acknowledge that we don’t see eye to eye on this particular issue.
- We accurately understand each other’s positions and the rationale for arriving at those conclusions.
- We’ve discussed our differences enough to understand that more discussion is unlikely to change minds on either side.
- We will now, therefore, put the issue aside, leave it there, and focus instead on what unites us more than what divides us.
- We’ve committed to have a good relationship with each other despite our areas of disagreement. We’ll keep our views AND get along.
I know what you’re thinking: That sounds nice in theory but let’s get real, that never happens. I would contend that if you’re in a long-term well-functioning relationship, you’ve had to do that from time to time.
When we first got married, my wife and I became aware of our differing clean-clothes-disbursement philosophies. The way I look at it—as I’m sure you will agree—you take the clothes out of the dryer, wad them up, and stuff them into drawers. Voila! The clothes quickly disappear from view. My wife’s philosophy involves the more laborious task of folding each item individually and stacking them into the drawers neatly. Obviously wrong because now the clothes remain visible until the unnecessary folding can occur. Early on, we had quite a few arguments over that.
But we ultimately came to an agreement to disagree agreeably. I still believe strongly in my wadding and stuffing methodology. She maintains her folding and stacking commitments. That’ll probably never change and that’s OK. We get along even though we still see it differently but that area of difference isn’t central to our relationship.
Clothes-folding is a piddly issue but what about bigger, more emotionally-charged areas of difference? What if you’re at an impasse about something major and agreeing to disagree agreeably is more of a challenge?
In The Drama Review from July 7th, I told you a story to illustrate a point. I’d like to use that same story now to illustrate the point of today’s letter—how people can get along despite deeply-held political differences. So, I’ll be quoting myself. How narcissistic is that?
In 1992, Bill Clinton ran for president against George H.W. Bush. One of Clinton’s key campaign operatives was James Carville, a single guy who was very liberal in his political persuasions. One of Bush’s key campaign operatives was Mary Matalin, a single woman who was very conservative in her political persuasions. As we know, Clinton won the election. In early 1993, Carville and Matalin, leaders in the opposing campaigns . . . got married. To everyone’s shock and awe. Just one of the oddest political couplings ever. They spent years trying to convince people it wasn’t a stunt. You know, sort of a carnival act that might jack up their speaking fees.
I used to watch them on Meet the Press when Tim Russert was the moderator. Russert would regularly have them on to debate opposite sides of a political issue. It was interesting to watch. They weren’t rude. They were nice to each other. They didn’t talk over each other or interrupt. They didn’t throw zingers. They didn’t try to score cheap political points. There were no put-downs. Each engaged in a reasoned articulation of their opposing political positions.
But here’s the thing. As I listened to their back and forth, I could not detect a single molecule of common political ground. During the commercial, they’d go back stage and get their kids. And as Meet the Press went off, here’s this happy family sitting on the set with Tim Russert. Go figure.
In 2014, Carville and Matalin wrote a book together entitled Love and War. In it, they describe their years of being on opposite sides of the political fence but having a good marriage nonetheless. They’re honest about the struggles they’ve experienced. It hasn’t been easy but they’ve done it. They’ve learned how to get along despite deeply-held differences.
And—here’s an important point—they’ve not migrated away from their positions toward some ideologically fuzzy middle ground. If anything, they’re now rooted more firmly than ever in their plots on either end of the political field. But they’ve got a good relationship despite that. It’s a wonderful story of a thinking liberal getting along with a thinking conservative.
That . . . is what a healthily handled political impasse looks and sounds like. Would that we could have more of that in today’s supercharged environment where people view politics as a gladiatorial blood sport.