It reminds me of an episode of The Office: “Launch Party.” Phyllis, a long-suffering member of the office’s party planning committee, has finally had it with that committee’s rude leader, the accountant Angela. So Phyllis does what any earnest mid-level employee might be encouraged to do: she Googles “how to deal with difficult people,” finds some helpful wiki-how style pointers, and applies them.
Hilarity ensues. In one gag, the pair rolls out a banner that Phyllis prepared for the celebratory launch of their company’s new website. Only one problem: the banner says “Lunch Party,” not “Launch Party.”
Phyllis, to a furious Angela: “So, how do you feel about the fact that the banner says ‘lunch’?”
Angela: “I feel angry. Angry at you. Angry at you for doing something stupid. Angry at me for believing you could do something not stupid.”
Phyllis discreetly consults her Googled pointers. “I’m so sorry to hear that. That must be awful.”
Angela: “It is awful. You’ve made this day awful.”
A joke isn’t a joke if it has to be explained, but the explanation is important for this review. This scene is funny in part because it reveals how typically useless the corporate-psych platitudes found in employee handbooks, orientation videos, and wiki threads are: Be courteous and respectful. Don’t shout. Use “I” statements, not “you” statements.
Often such suggestions amount to an over-literalization and systemization of basic social rules and procedures that anyone with emotional intelligence learns before age 12. The benefit in reading them, if there is any, is to remind yourself that the outcome of the difficult interaction is not in your control, but you can at least maintain composure and dignity. It resolves nothing except your own sense of responsibility over the outcome of the interaction. You don’t really learn anything new by reading these rules or pointers. If you were to follow them closely, to a T, you’d end up acting like an alien among humans.
Part of the problem with Brian F. Harrison’s new book is that it largely amounts to Phyllis’s Googled pointers, only applied to political conversations. Harrison is a lecturer in public affairs at the University of Minnesota and an evident champion of the pursuit of common ground between left and right: he considers himself a progressive but worked for the Bush administration, and has written about how best to advocate for LGBT rights. He offers his “practical suggestions” in order to facilitate productive, civil conversations about politics in an era of polarization. But the suggestions are statements of the obvious. Any reader looking for new or compellingly articulated insights into our present political dysfunction, as well as a detailed roadmap out of it, will be disappointed to learn that, for Harrison, all folks really need to do is remember the following:
Nowadays, people are stuck in their echo chambers. That’s bad! (Chapter 1)
And having learned that, do the following:
Get out of their echo chambers and talk to people with different political views. (Chapter 2)
Choose their words carefully. (Chapter 3)
Use arguments that the other side might accept, not reject. Find “reliable information from credible sources.” (Chapter 4)
Try to make their interlocutors feel good, not bad, because people can get emotional about politics. (Chapter 5)
Find common ground with the other side and emphasize it. Try to empathize with people on the other side. (Chapter 6)
It takes 157 pages, not including endnotes, for Harrison to state these and related clichés. Mainly that’s because he spends a great deal of time prefacing them with research. Some of the research is interesting, and occasionally Harrison relates it to his work as an LGBT advocate. But too much of the book ploddingly states what readers already know, and often by explaining concepts that are already well understood.
For instance, Harrison breaks down the “three important elements that determine the impact of any given conversation,” as if to a person who’d never had one before. The three important elements turn out the be “the person with whom you’re speaking” (who, we learn, can also be called the “messenger”), the “tone of the conversation,” and, “of course, the content.”
Two things are striking about this passage. One is the needless italicization of “messenger,” “tone,” and “content,” as if Harrison were introducing new vocabulary words. The other is the “of course” that precedes “content.” In a paragraph that states only the obvious, which words and concepts don’t merit the “of course”? Why is “content” so special?
Harrison proceeds in this manner for much of the book. There is, in other words, a great deal of academic throat-clearing, all in order to make points that you don’t need a degree to already understand and believe.
The book also, at crucial points, fails to accurately describe the kinds of political interactions it claims to understand.
In a section about the importance of not alienating people you’re debating, Harrison discusses “shame” — an emotion he says can “shut down political discussions entirely.” Then comes the research: Shame is in “our genes.” It is often an impediment to communication. Shame can be good, as when it is employed gently and constructively by parents on their children, or bad, as when it is used in political conversations.
Yes, fine. On with it. How is “shame” used in political conversations?
“Many people feel embarrassed or self-conscious if they use outdated or incorrect terms or don’t fully understand certain topics, particularly surrounding hot-button contemporary political debates.” This “social stigma,” Harrison claims, makes people reluctant to talk politics. What they feel, Harrison alleges, is “shame.”
Let’s translate for the only audience that is likely to use an “outdated” word about “hot-button” issues regularly: Republicans, conservatives, the right. According to Harrison, then, people who can’t keep up with politically correct terms (to use the right’s lingo) feel, on the whole, ashamed about it. And it’s this shame that makes them reluctant to talk politics with someone they suspect will be quick to correct them and update their vocabulary.
The fun is just beginning, and the lazy assumptions pile up. “Sometimes,” Harrison writes, “we shame those with less information as being ignorant, further exacerbating the conversational divide.” He explains that one of his research areas is “transgender people and rights,” which makes him a go-to source for information and explanation from friends and family. When presented with questions about transgender pronouns, say, Harrison admits that he could respond by shaming the questioner. He could exclaim: “What an ignorant thing to say!” But if he did that, Harrison says, the conversation would shut down. Better, then, to respond to all such questions “honestly and without judgment, without shaming the other person for what I perceive to be an incorrect or incomplete worldview…”
Hold on a minute. In general terms, Harrison’s claim is fair enough. Everyone knows it’s better, in a political conversation, to carefully and clearly explain your position rather than slinging mud, if you’re interested in changing the mind of the person with whom you’re speaking. But this term “shame,” which one encounters often in this book, fails to describe the dynamics of most interactions to which it is lazily applied.
Think of the last time you’ve heard a conversation in which one lectures another about not using the “updated” or “politically correct” vernacular, in the scolding manner Harrison condemns. In order for the person being lectured to feel anything like real “shame,” an emotion closely related to guilt and self-disgust, they would have to be earnest and empathetic. Most of all, they would have to trust the intentions and knowledge of the person who was lecturing them, and assume that the person does indeed have the moral high ground.
But the opposite is usually true. Scolds are almost always despised, especially by the right. More likely, then, the person being lectured doesn’t necessarily feel “shame” but something more like annoyance. Perhaps they feel that they can’t have a real conversation with the scold without getting screamed at, so they keep their mouth shut. They will likely start hating the person scolding them. They might feel a lot of things. But they don’t feel “shame.” Indeed, that’s why members of the right are occasionally called “shameless”: they scorn what they consider, often obtusely, the pieties of the left.
Harrison could examine some of the above; he could even give it a glancing mention, if only to add context to his discussion of “shame.” But he doesn’t. Instead, here and throughout the book, he critiques the form of political debate without considering its content.
This habit likely stems from Harrison’s desire to help clean up political debate, make it more civil, while staying comfortably nonpartisan, objective, above the fray. The book often reassures readers that if they follow its main pointers, they won’t just talk about politics with more dignity, they’ll also win more people to their side. Consider this example, from a paragraph about the importance of looking “beyond differences”: “The point is this: there are ways to converse with people about important things in ways that maximize the likelihood that they listen to you … and maybe, with some luck and a lot of effort and time, possibly change their mind.”
Harrison makes this claim without ever making any assumptions about what the reader’s political views actually are. Is it that Harrison doesn’t care?
If we assume that Harrison wants the book to be read by members of the left and right, then the above statement, and the equal-opportunity manner with which he dispenses rhetorical advice, is oddly mercenary. Or, we could assume that Harrison simply figures this book will be read by the sorts of people who read books about how to have “effective political conversations” in “a divided America” — centrists, moderates, people who “see both sides.”
That’s fine. There’s just one problem: such people already follow the pointers in Harrison’s book, and it hasn’t been working.
Joseph Hogan is a writer and fact-checker. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, and elsewhere. He lives in New York City.