I bet you know what I’m about to say.
Not all of it, of course, not every detail. But by now, if you’ve read the headline, if you know what site this essay is on, and especially if you’ve looked at my bio or read any of my past articles, you have a pretty good idea what I’m about to say. It honestly doesn’t matter whether I say it or not. I could say something entirely different. The next sentence, I’m going to put in its own paragraph. It is an example that I’m not going to defend further. That’s not the point of it.
Donald Trump has a history of making racist statements.
I’m putting that in a separate short paragraph surrounded by longer paragraphs to make it stand out. It’s a dramatic technique. So my publisher doesn’t get upset with me (rightfully so) for making unfounded and scandalous statements about prominent people, I’ll provide some links. I’m just repeating sources like Vox and PBS. Blame them, not me.
So now, if you’re the sort that likes Trump well enough, you probably have your hackles up. You’re probably ready to defend him and insult me and the other liberal snowflakes. Why do I say that? Because I bet I know what you’re about to say.
And if you’re the sort that doesn’t like Trump, you want to know what original dirt I have on him, what original insights I have, so that you can put more stuff in your arsenal against that MAGA-hat-wearing co-worker of yours who just won’t shut up. Why do I say that?
Because I bet I know what you’re about to say.
(Yes, yes, I know, I don’t really know what you’re about to say. But I “think” I do. Bear with me.)
This article isn’t about Donald Trump. If you’ve gotten this far, good for you. Let me reiterate: This article isn’t about Donald Trump.
This article is about language, psychology, sociology, and how we communicate.
Oh my goodness, it sounds boring when I put it that way. Let me try again.
This article is about who we talk to when we talk.
We like to think we talk to each other. We like to think we set aside our own biases and truly listen to what people of different viewpoints have to say.
Or maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m assuming the way I tell myself to approach conversations is the way other people do, too.
We usually don’t, though. As humans, we have all this evolutionary stuff that programs us to look for quick patterns in what’s happening around us and fill in the blanks. The faster we read, the more we’re just filling in the gaps we’re skipping over with stuff we think will be there. When we listen to other people talk, a part of our brain is focused on what we’re going to say back, so we miss what’s being said.
And then there are those words that our minds rush to like moths to a flame: “Racist.” “Privilege.” “Toxic.” “Snowflake.” “Rape.” “PC.” “Grit.”
By the way, there are snowflakes falling outside my window right now, as I sit at my PC and give you the alleged privilege of reading my words.
Quick quiz, don’t look back in the article! Ask yourself: Did I call the President of the United State of America a racist?
If you said yes, you just demonstrated my point. Because I did not.
On one level, I’m talking about selective attention. Our brains are overwhelmed with information, and so we tend to skim over and ignore things which don’t seem relevant to us, or which we feel we can predict.
I fear, though, that this is deeper than simple selective attention. I fear that we’re at a point in cultural dialogue where we talk to each other less often than we talk to our internal projections onto others.
I was recently in an internet argument. Both sides seemed totally convinced of the correctness of their side and how the other side was not just wrong, but unreasonable. As the conversation went on, feelings getting hurt more and more, it seemed to become harder for anyone to hear anyone else’s point.
And then somebody on “that side” said something, and I realized that the two sides were arguing about different things. We were yelling at each other for something we’d thought the other side has said, and we were so focused, each of us, on getting our point across that we weren’t trying to hear anyone else.
We could have had a productive conversation about the nuances of the subject. Instead, we spent all our energy building our walls up even more.
When I wore a younger man’s skin, I used to think the problem was labels. I’m a white American man. No matter who you are, you’re likely to judge me in some way for that characterization.
Now I’m concerned that the problem runs even deeper than that. It’s not just labels, it’s key words. It’s projections. It’s insecurity. It’s fear that we’re wrong and unimportant that drives us to mold each other into golems of our own psyches.
Do we speak to each other? Or do we speak to these golems that we’ve cast upon others’ bodies?
If you’ve decided you agree with me, the golem has an ethereal aura, a beautiful golden glow that hums the voices of angels.
If you’ve decided you don’t agree with me, the golem is made of feces and rose thorns, something to be mocked, shunned, and thrown aside.
Underneath the golem is me. I’m neither. I’m a flawed human who is trying to be a good person, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, sometimes mucking up.
Beneath the partisan bickering is a murmuring to find “common ground,” which is one of those phrases that sends my own hackles into full-on porcupine mode. I’m not talking about that, primarily. It’s deeper than that: This is about even hearing what someone else is trying to say.
As a teacher, I hear my students complain, “You didn’t teach us this.” Usually what they really mean is, “We didn’t learn this.” There’s a difference. It doesn’t matter that I say if you’ve already decided what I’m going to say, and decide to hear that instead.
Before we can find common ground, we need to listen to each other, not to the golems we’ve created for each other.
I don’t know what you’re going to say now, and that’s a good thing.
Originally published on The Good Men Project.