Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Taking Stands and Telling Stories

Earlier this week I ran across a blog post in which the author argued that many people mistakenly perceive Facebook to be an effective vehicle of persuasion.  He questioned the value of using one's Facebook status for "taking a stand" on controversial issues, because, "you only attract those who agree with you and you repel those who disagree with you."

There are several reasons this is true.  For one, most of us are not particularly open to having our minds changed about hot-button issues.  More fundamentally, we rarely change strongly held opinions simply because the opposing position is stated clearly, or loudly, or with a thousand "likes."  In fact, we may never change these strongly held opinions.

When I shared this blog post on my own Facebook page, one of my relatives pointed out the irony of the author "taking a stand" about not taking a stand, and I suspect he will continue to express his own strong opinions as is his custom and certainly his right.  Another relative commented that he long ago decided to keep his political commentary within the circle of people who held similar views  or who were otherwise interested in hearing what he had to say.  Each of these responses, while reasonable, leave me feeling unsatisfied.

It isn't that I never feel the need to express my beliefs for the sake of expressing them, or that I don't appreciate exploring those beliefs with others who share my convictions.  And occasionally I succeed in persuading others.  (I do have a Ph.D. in Communication, after all.)  But most of the potential conversations around our most important issues -- and those conversations most likely to truly affect us -- fall outside of these categories.  We have to find more ways to engage one another in true dialogue on these issues that divide us; not so that we will all eventually agree, but so that we have some hope of preserving community in the midst of diversity.

In his book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, Parker J. Palmer writes of the importance of having opportunities to tell our stories to others in environments of both diversity and trust.  Palmer writes:

According to conventional wisdom, we arrive at shared truth only by confronting and correcting each other in debate.  But my experience suggests that we rarely change our minds and move toward mutual understanding in the heat of argument.  Instead, we become separated from each other, and from the inner teacher, by our fear of losing the battle -- and the energy we expend trying to make sure that we win leaves us with no resources for reflection and transformation.

I can listen to your story -- the experiences that have shaped your deeply held beliefs and feelings -- and learn from you and about you, without giving into my urge to correct you.  I can ask you questions, not for cross-examination but to more fully understand.  If my goal is to "take a stand," this all would be a waste of time.  I can accomplish that on Facebook with the same degree of success in changing your mind.  But if I hope to achieve anything else, this is the best next step that I know to take.