Communications as understanding

I think one of the most painful things I’ve had to hear for the past several years are people’s stories about how they’ve fought to maintain good relations with their loved ones who have swallowed Fox News storylines hook, line, and sinker. I really feel for people when they tell me these stories; I understand the complex, sometimes painful, enduring nature of love between family members and friends. I also understand how painful it can be to reconcile your views of a person you thought had good beliefs and values—ones that have helped shape who you are today—with their ignorant or misinformed views on reproductive freedom, LGBTQ rights, and racism.

I have been wondering, when thinking about the painful divisions in our country and in our communities and our families, whether we have somehow lost the plot when it comes to healing those divisions. Somehow—and we can certainly wonder about the effects of social media, or media, or hateful shit-stirring leaders—we seem to be losing the will and/or the capacity to understand each other. And even though the reasons why we have lost the will and/or the capacity to understand one another are many, and valid, we are all suffering greatly from this loss. Because losing the will and the capacity to understand one another means that we are also losing connection with each other. In other words, these terrible, seemingly entrenched divisions are a lose-lose situation.

Jon Stewart expressed thoughts along similar lines during a recent appearance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. I am a big fan of Jon Stewart, let me just get that out of the way. For me, Jon Stewart is the host of the Daily Show who I truly fangirl about, similar to how I feel about Patrick Stewart when it comes to Star Trek starship captains. During this recent appearance, Stephen Colbert asked Jon Stewart about how he felt about the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the United States and all over the world—and more specifically, how he felt about Dave Chappelle’s jokes about anti-Semitism during his traditional post-election Saturday Night Live monologue. (Dave Chappelle and Jon Stewart are very good friends.)

I won’t entirely paraphrase what Jon Stewart said, but essentially he expressed a version of what I am trying to say here: that shutting down all conversation about something without understanding what the other person is trying to say or where they’re coming from is pretty much like calling the game before it even starts. You’ll never get to connect with someone if you’re screaming at them or canceling them, in other words. You’ll never change their mind if you only react to the words you heard them say, however awful they may be, and you’ll never be able to fight back against ignorance and hate and racism if you don’t first try to understand  to where these attitudes and words and thoughts are coming from.

Now. I want to be clear about something, here. I am highly motivated by my beliefs about what’s fair and what’s unfair. Given all the suffering that marginalized groups have already experienced from those who harbor unreasonably prejudiced views about them, it feels unconscionable to ask anyone in those groups, or anyone who stands in allyship with them, expend further emotional bandwidth or labor to try and understand people who have not done the work themselves in understanding and accepting others. In other words, I get how wrong this post may come off. What, you are asking me to help people understand, yet again, why women should have autonomy over their own bodies and that reproductive decisions are private and should be made without interference of the government? Would you like me to explain, again, what critical race theory is and isn’t, and that it’s not about teaching all children that all white people are evil? Would you like me to go into why it’s important to respect people’s sexual orientation, their gender identity, and their pronouns?

So yes, I am aware of the potential wrongness of what I’m saying. It sticks in my craw that millions and millions of people in the United States do not more actively question and repudiate the lies they’re told by members of the GOP and Fox News. And yet, some of those millions and millions of people are your family members and your friends.

In other words, I have a strong suspicion that there are people in our country—white people, people of color, people of both genders—who, yes, absolutely SHOULD be doing more work to understand others but who also need understanding. They need to be seen and they need to feel affirmed before we can ever hope to open up their minds. Because if some of us don’t make the effort to understand them, then we’ve given up all hope of connecting with them. And then we will stay exactly where we are now: in our little corners, mired in anger and frustration, and sick at heart over the divisions in our country, our society, and our families and friends.

I’ve been thinking about this question of understanding when it comes to my chosen career, communications. I work on causes that matter. Or that should matter to more people than they do now. Like climate change, equitable education opportunities, healthcare, etc. And I’ve been thinking that the best litmus test for the value of the work I do is whether the work ends up reflecting understanding of and empathy with the target audiences. Keep in mind, I can’t always apply the litmus test–many times, I’m asked by a client to write something or do something that is mostly focused on telling people about something: an issue they should care about, an action they should take, a problem or a solution they should learn more about. Look, I get it: people need their words, and their stories, and sometimes it’s better to give them those things rather than let them struggle to say what they mean. But these days, with our society suffering such pain over our divisions and in light of the grave harm that some groups are inflicting on others, I care the most about communicating in ways that I hope make people feel seen, and understood. I think the goal should be to open up people’s minds and hearts, and maybe make holiday gatherings suck a little less.

I’ll leave you with a few words from Damon Young, one of my favorite writers, who wrote a recent piece for the Washington Post about Kyrie Irving. He did not let Kyrie Irving, or his supporters, off the hook for his recent sharing of a video with anti-Semitic content. He also did not conflate his opinion of what Kyrie Irving said with how much he admires Kyrie Irving, the basketball player. The quote that stayed with me from that piece is this:

“There is also a legitimate sensitivity among some Black people about how anti-Blackness seems to be culturally permissible in a way that antisemitism just isn’t. I think this interpretation is myopic, but the hurt expressed there is real. More education is always better. More understanding is always better. And Irving’s actions and the reaction to them are an opportunity for radical and equilibrium-shifting empathy.”

More education is always better. More understanding is always better. That’s how I feel, too.