Courteous Conversations: Talking across political lines

the brothers sabey logo with headphones

Brian is a soft-spoken man who invites us into his living room while he retreats into a back room to finish putting the children to sleep. His wife is out playing volleyball with friends. Brian has blonde hair, blue eyes, and holds moderately conservative views.

I mention his political silhouette because that is the reason we have come. Our goal is to find people who disagree over potentially polarizing issues, and find a way to have them talk together and, more remarkably, listen.I put a fairly large burden on the word “listen.” It is meant to convey not only hearing but an attempt to honestly understand and even try on opposing perspectives. It demarks a displacing of oneself, an unmooring, the courage to be uncertain, unconvinced, unfastened. It is fundamentally generous in nature and requires a donation of blood in order to animate the foreign paradigm.

The problem, as we see it, is that typically when we engage in contentious conversations, we don’t listen. Instead, we only engage long enough to find a hole, or some reason to discount or disbelieve opposing views. Of course, there is nothing remarkable in being able to point out holes. Everything has holes. But the only person we have to convince is ourself, and that’s exactly what we do all of the time.

But we think we’ve developed a way to help people to get around this roadblock—that’s why we came to Brian’s house.

When Sean, a self-identified liberal, arrives he greets Brian amicably—their friendship began a few years back as members of the same church.  Sean is also soft-spoken, but has brown eyes and a mustaches that wraps around his lips into a beard.

This was our first Courteous Conversations in Nashville—a chance for a conservative to try and charitably understand opposing ideas. The goal, we explained to both Sean and Brain, is for Brian to achieve “unconverted admiration.” We use these two words to describe the ability to appreciate the perspective of someone he disagrees with.

We’ve asked them to talk about the minimum wage. As Brian leans conservative, he is unsure about distorting the labor market, “but,” he says like a true moderate, “I’m no expert.” The disclaimer exposes a slight hesitancy, a worry that what he says might be held against him. It is a way of inserting a backdoor into the paragraph.

We assure him that this is an interview not a dialogue. His only responsiblity is to be curious. He doesn’t have to worry about being correct, respected, articulate, or persuasive. There is freedom here in setting down the need to defend territory or refute claims. He is not even allowed to form a rebuttal. It is a complete liberation from his own views. Instead, he can listen. And once the interview begins, that is exactly what Brian does. He is naturally curious and enjoys following Sean from point to point. And Sean is eager to oblige.

I also listen while manning the camera. To me, Sean’s most persuasive idea is that there are social benefits for internalizing business costs through wage regulation. Let me briefly describe this concept, but not because it is crucial to the ideas of this blog post. This blog post is about the mode of conversation more than the topic. But a brief excursion into the subject will provide the flavor of ideas.

Sean believes that businesses often don’t pay for their own “pollution.” One example I can offer is Geneva Steel in Utah Valley. For years the company polluted the air which in turn increased the risk of a large variety of respiratory diseases for people living in the area. The company successfully externalized millions of dollars onto the local citizens and health care insurers until the state passed pollution taxes and regulation. These regulations internalized the cost within the business—so they had to pay for their own pollution. These regulation were economically beneficial. According to the economist C. Arden Pope, every dollar spent on cutting air pollution generated around $10 in economic savings. That’s unbelievable  savings.

And so it seems reasonable to claim that businesses also externalize cost through low wages. Health care is a simple example: If working at an office causes carpal tunnel, but the wage doesn’t allow workers to cover the medical costs, the business has externalized its own cost for doing business. And if workers are unable to pay for their own healthcare, who ends up paying for the much more expensive prospect of emergency room care?

In short, a minimum wage could be a good way to internalize the cost of doing business which could be the most economically beneficial (and honest) use of money.

When Sean is done explaining all of this, Brian notes that this is particularly persuasive because most conservative arguments against a minimum wage mention the “unintended” economic consequences. Conservative assume that “the other side” hasn’t considered the economic consequences fully. But, at least in this case, they have. In fact, economic waste is Sean’s primary concern.

It’s late when the interview comes to an end. And the ending is perhaps the most remarkable part. Brian feels that most of his questions have been answered and so the conversation simply ends, like so many arguments never do. There is no last word to be had, no reiteration of the central point, and most remarkably of all, no hard feelings.

Instead, Brian thanks Sean for his time. And they laugh, genuinely glad to be together. Sean remarks that it was strange to not have pushback. Instead, he found himself providing his own qualifications, and checking his own points. And Brian mentions how different it all was from what he would have heard on the radio.

He may have heard all the same arguments on the radio, but it wouldn’t have mattered. You can always discredit ideas, because of where the information comes from or some hole in the argument. Interviewing someone, with the goal of understanding how they see things and what is admirable in it, did not change the information. It simply allowed Brian to listen.

Did Sean convince Brian? There wasn’t time to go that far, but it felt good, Brian says, to honestly consider a perspective separate from his own. But go ahead and listen to their conversation yourself.

If you like what you read here please like us on Facebook, it helps. And please record your own Courteous Conversation to send our way!


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