Looking Across the River

The following essay was published on The Caesura Letters on November 11, 2015 in response to the following prompt:

Write about Oliver. Not any Oliver you know personally, of course, but a fictional guy named Oliver. Any of the following might be true about Oliver: he might believe something radically different than you do; he might appear to you be completely unable to critically assess his own beliefs; he might be what you consider ‘dogmatic’ or ‘brainwashed’ or ‘fundamentalist’; he might have reasons for his beliefs that have nothing to do with being reasonable or logical as you define ‘reason’ and ‘logic’. Now, how are you going to have a constructive conversation with Oliver? Why does Oliver think the way he does? Why is Oliver invested in his beliefs? Introduce us to your Oliver, explain your differences, and show us how to move a dialogue forward.

Imagine you are standing on a corner with a clipboard that clearly marks your purpose: voter registration. There’s an upcoming election and you want to make sure everyone has the chance to participate. A young man — let’s call him Oliver — heads in your direction. Seeing your clipboard, his face contorts into a grimace. You steel yourself.

“Good morning! Are you registered to vote?” you ask.

“I don’t vote,” Oliver shoots at you.

The moment freezes. You repeat Oliver’s statement in your head. I don’t vote. Immediately, your mind meets a torrent of frustration and outrage. In this moment, the two of you couldn’t be further apart: a non-voter and a volunteer helping people register to vote.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume Oliver’s position as a non-voter is wrong: voting is an essential component of what it means to be a citizen and it is the only way a system like democracy can function. After all, as the United States Supreme Court noted in the landmark case of Reynolds v. Sims (1964), the free exercise of the franchise is, “preservative of other basic civil and political rights.” Put another way, voting is the scaffolding upon which our society is built.

Given the strong case for the value and importance of the individual’s vote, your intuitive response to Oliver is understandable. However sympathetic we might be to your response, there exists an important distinction between Oliver’s position and the path to that position. To understand how to engage in a dialogue with Oliver (and ultimately, to convince him of the merit of your viewpoint), we have to put in the effort to understand the nature of his position, including how he arrived there. There are many trails to the position of non-voting.

Could it be that Oliver believes that there is no daylight between the parties in competition, meaning elections present meaningless choices? Perhaps, from Oliver’s viewpoint, there are no real consequences to elections and the systems in which we live in are controlled not by the government but other forces? Does Oliver feel like his vote doesn’t count given the demographics of the area? Did he arrive at his position by way of a particular ethical framework?

Each of these different trails leads to the same position: Oliver is not a voter. However, the work of moving Oliver from this position is radically different depending on which path he took to arrive there. For example, it is easier to convince Oliver that there are real differences between the candidates — say, one supports universal health care and the other doesn’t — than it would be to change his mind about our responsibilities towards others within a particular ethical framework.

Regardless, the key to changing Oliver’s mind is to meet him where he is. Persuasion is an art of building bridges. When we build a bridge, we invite someone to cross the river — to change their position — to the other side. It’s only when we exhaust questions about the nature of someone’s understanding that we can locate where to build the bridge. In that process of location, you also do two important things. First, you garner trust with the person: even though you still stand across the river from them, at the very least you see where they are on the other side. Second, you might find that you’re not up against the demon that you thought you first encountered upon hearing their position.

In a speech in Paris, Teddy Roosevelt famously proclaimed, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena” (1910).

We can go further than Roosevelt: it’s not the critic who counts, nor the man in the arena, but the man in the correct arena. The Oliver in the encounter above can come in many forms in our day to day. No matter Oliver’s position, we must remember that in the battle of ideas, where we choose to stage the battle is important. Today, remember that true persuasion requires that we explore how we arrive at our deeply held positions, not just the positions themselves.