What is partisan? Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more

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[Image description: A picture with the profiles of a dog and a cat, staring at each other. The dog is on the left. The top of its head is black, the band around its eyes is brown, and the band around its nose is white. The cat is on the right. It is mainly black, with a white nose and mouth and a thin streak of brown down its forehead. Neither of the animals’ bodies is shown.]

OK, everyone, we need to have a talk. Due to the current political climate, I’ve been noticing that many of us have been more curt and on attack-mode lately. The simplest disagreement sets off chains of arguments. Tension builds, insults fly, and someone ends up stabbed in the spleen. And that’s just over the Oxford Comma. #OxfordCommaForever #OxfordCommasSaveLives #ILoveYouOxfordComma #WillYouMarryMeOxfordComma

I’ve suggested some general agreements to help us have more civil conversations with one another when we don’t agree, rules like “Assume the best intention,” “Seek to understand,” and “No matter how angry you get, don’t bite anyone.” Let’s agree to be nicer to one another, OK? And let’s just be nicer to everyone, even the clueless turd donkeys who don’t agree with you and thus are clearly ugly and wrong.

So instead of snarky responses like “Jealous much?” how about “I disagree”? Instead of “Your privilege is showing,” how about “What you said is an example of privilege”? Instead of “You are so gross and thoughtless,” how about “Jason, would you mind not clipping your toenails during staff meetings”? Let’s give one another the benefit of the doubt and not just assume that everyone is intentionally trying to be a-holes, all right? The world is tense, scary, and volatile enough as it is; we don’t need to turn on one another.

Many of the tensest arguments we get into nowadays, especially online, are around political matters, even if they don’t start off as political. It often goes like this:

Person 1: Apples are amazing
Person 2: Are you saying oranges are not?
Person 1: WTF does that have to do with anything?! You probably voted for [politician], didn’t you?!
Person 2: Aw, is the special snowflake getting offended?!
Person 1: People like you are the reason the Apocalypse is coming!
Person 2: Go back to reading your fake news about apples! You’re probably even a fake snowflake!
Person 3: This is the worst parenting forum ever…

Let’s get serious for a moment. Many of us are now terrified of participating in any online conversations on any subject. Many of them quickly become uncivil, and inevitably someone will be accused of being a partisan hack, and the conversation only devolves from there.

I believe we as a sector need to have more conversations about policies, especially when these policies severely damages communities and perpetuate racism, sexism, Islamophobia, ableism, and other forms of injustice. We must speak out against policies and beliefs that foster injustice, and we must advocate more. Civil rights and human rights are not partisan. Fighting to protect our communities is not partisan. We may disagree with one another about stuff, but disagreement itself is not partisan. We need to end this belief that whenever someone says something we disagree with, they’re being partisan and need to be shut down.

The problem may be that we don’t really have an agreement about what actually constitutes partisanship, and what is just a difference of opinion. So let’s discuss that today. Here’s my definition of partisan, mainly as applied to conversations, subject to feedback and future revisions: “Unwavering loyalty to a political party, often manifesting in personal attacks and/or the questioning of the motives of people considered to be on opposing sides.”

Personal attacks are attacks on people’s characters, not a critique on their ideas or disagreements with their premises or conclusions. There’s been a lot of terrible name-calling on our society lately. This also includes insulting memes of various political figures. We’ve also been accusing one another of being “trolls” or “butt-hurt” when we do not agree. Personal attacks do not lead anywhere productive. It just forces people to shut down or be on the defensive. It breaks down civil dialogue and furthers the divide between all of us.

Questioning of motives: The other destructive marker of partisanship is the questioning of motives. Instead of, again, focusing on ideas, we start attacking people’s motives. A simple disagreement now becomes “you only believe that because you hate so-and-so or you’re trying to do blah-blah.” None of us have access to anyone else’s minds, so when we start assuming we know what they are thinking or why they believe the things they do, we are venturing into wild conjectures. This is incredibly counterproductive, as nothing riles people up more than when their motives—and thus their integrity—are attacked.

In general, name-calling and motive-questioning are terrible and we need to put a stop to them in all dialogues. It’s even worse when it’s put into already volatile political conversations. That’s when it becomes partisan and destructive. But absent of either of these two elements, I don’t think it’s necessarily partisan, but rather just a disagreement, and we need to learn how to have conversations even when we disagree. Here are a few examples:

Example A: “I am not a big fan of [politician].” Is this partisan? I don’t think so. No one is being insulted. No one’s motives are being questioned. This states a simple fact. We tend to get riled up and make assumptions about people, such as this person obviously being a member of a particular political party. Who says they are? They could be independent. I’ve met a few people who are not fans of President Trump who are also not fans of President Obama.

Example B: “All these protests are counterproductive. We need to give this administration a chance.” Is this partisan? I don’t think so, no. You may disagree with this statement. But no one’s character is being attacked, and no one’s motives are questioned.

Example C: “The only people who voted for [politician] are xenophobes, misogynists, and racists.” Is this partisan? Yes. You’re questioning people’s motives, and you’re also calling them some very serious names. This does not help anything. It shuts down conversations. We need to avoid statements like this.

Example D: “It saddens me that [politician] is endorsed by [group].” Is this partisan? No. Again, this states a simple fact, no insults, no questioning of motives.

Example E: “You only say that because liberals care more about trees and animals than people.” Is this partisan? Yes. Even if there is not a personal attack, you’re making assumptions about why someone is saying something, which falls into the area of motivation-questioning.

Example F: “I get it, you’re a delicate snowflake and deserve special considerations.” Is this partisan? If it’s in a political context, yes. It violates the rule about not using insults or character attacks. If it’s not in a political context, it’s still rude and should not be put up with.

Example G: “[Politician]’s XYZ law will break up families and severely hurt communities.” Is this partisan? No. Addressing unfair laws like this is one of the reasons our sector exists.

I can go on with examples. But you get the picture. We need to learn to have civil conversations, including strong disagreements, without it becoming a political throw-down. I am proposing a simple rule: If a statement contains no personal attacks and no questioning of anyone’s motivations, it is not partisan and we need to be able to have a conversation like adults.

And keep in mind that just because you feel insulted does not mean that someone is trying to insult you. If they didn’t attack your character or anyone else’s, call you or others names, or questioned your or others’ motives, but rather said something you disagreed with, learn to engage without resorting to those tactics. There’s been way too many conversations online that escalated and got out of hand, from all political leanings. 

We need to discuss policies as they affect our communities. Calling out unjust laws, beliefs, and practices is one of the duties of our sector. But let’s be collegial, have more patience, and disagree without flinging vitriol. We are not going to see eye-to-eye on many things, and if we can’t discuss those things without strangling one another, our work and community suffer.

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  • LouAnn Lucke

    I think one of the main problems is these conversations aren’t face to face. Online conversations are already reductionist. We tend to go even faster than we might when talking on the phone. I would suggest a self-rule of posting something and then re-reading, and re-reading the post that stimulated the response, and thinking not just about the post itself but about who will read and see it and the impact. Which is generally what I do in conversation – knowing that misunderstanding is common, and that at least in real time there is more of an opportunity to respond, but in online time, not so much.

    • Patrick Taylor

      I agree 100%. I was at a panel recently about representation and whitewashing. I’ve seen ugly, unproductive online discussions of this topic numerous times. It was a revelation to me how much more effective it was in person, where the audience could see the panel members and the panel members could see the audience. It is so much easier to be a reactionary jerk when you are type-shouting at avatars. In person, it forces you to really consider the person you are talking to, understand the nuance of their words, the way in which they were said, their facial expressions, etc.

  • LouAnn Lucke

    And I’ll add this – as someone who has been a mediator for 25 plus years – if someone says something that you think is insulting or harsh – you can respond by asking why they are thinking that way – you can open that up even if they aren’t. I’ve often found that even with online comments if I approach comments from a place of openness things will often change just from a simple, less antagonistic response in the chain.

  • betty barcode

    I’m really glad you brought out the word ‘partisan.’ People confuse being partisan with being political, and they are not synonyms.

    Complaining that an elected official is “being political” is like complaining that a pastor is being religious. The political process is their job and ours, as citizens in a democracy.

    When our leaders act to serve self or party at the expense of constituents or communities, then we need to call it partisan.

  • I just returned from a vacation to Montreal to visit my brother and his wife. They’ve lived there for 47 years, and I’ve been there many times, but this time around I was truly struck by something I’d forgotten having missed: general civility. People were polite to one another. In every possible circumstance. Strangers, including snarky teenagers, voluntarily give up their seats to others (being ancient helps to prompt this behavior). Sales people are gracious. Clerks on the metro are helpful. Best of all, when we held a brunch and a bunch of people came over, they dealt with the US political system in thoughtful, curious and best of all neutral ways. I mean “neutral” as in not taking sides. Even the young gate agent at the airport was thoughtful and didn’t attack the US, or me, or the current administration.

    Hey, I’m not saying Canada is perfect. For one thing it’s too f-ing cold to live. But it was definitely a nice break from constant vitriol and haranguing.

    Let’s have a civility movement. Etiquette is a good thing. I miss it.

  • Mehitabel

    Civil rights and human rights are not inherently partisan, true. But these are issues that can be made to be partisan when one political party adopts as the core of its values and platform the systematic eradication of civil rights, whether for specific groups of people or for all.

  • Eric Burgess

    Vu, I wish it could be as easy as you outlined in this post, but it can’t. Especially in a city like Seattle. I lived there for 10 years, met my wife up there, we had two children, and sold our little house on Phinney Ridge last year (for $$$$!) — but we had to leave unfortunately.

    While our move was motivated by her wanting to be closer to her parents (California) after the second kid, I will say that I was feeling pressured each day in the workplace to keep my political thoughts and ideas to myself. I was truly living in the closet as a Conservative, and my wife and I both knew that opening up about our political leanings in Seattle was “career suicide.” So, for the most part I kept it to myself during the Bush Administration and during the first half of Obama’s Administration before we moved.

    Civil conversations as you write, were for the most part difficult to have. Hell, I worked with a guy who leaned so far left that he was literally blown away when he learned I was having baby number two. To him, raising more than one kid in Seattle was cray-cray. Go figure?!

    Anyway, I’m not looking for sympathy. Just wanted to share some first hand experiences with you from someone else who used to live in Seattle. Something to think about from the lens of someone who was experiencing what you’re talking about here FAR BEFORE these crazy Trump times.

  • Patricia Osage

    But what about this? My brothers and sisters voted for trump knowing that he wanted to get rid of “illegals” -some of whom they know I have as friends. They voted for him knowing VP pence thinks gays- me- are sick and vile. I am having a very hard time believing they care about me as a family member. If they did care, they wouldn’t have put me and my friends at risk of so many things. Another option is that they didn’t think trump would actually try anything- which would mean they didn’t care enough to pay attention. I love your article; it’s very practical – I just can’t get there yet with my own family.

    • Epsilonicus

      I am in the same boat with you.

  • Lisa G

    Thank you for all your wonderful writing, but especially on this topic. I’d like to recommend three books I read this year because I don’t want to be part of the problem: 1) “Healing the Heart of Democracy” by Parker Palmer. 2) “I’m Right and You’re an Idiot” by James Hoggan. 3) “Mere Civility” by Teresa Bejan.

  • kristen

    I was most struck by the line that “civil rights and human rights are not partisan.” In today’s political landscape, it feels to me that they HAVE become partisan and quite polarizing. I sometimes struggle to feel comfortable expressing my support for what I view as basic rights (I’m quite liberally minded) without others who feel differently than I do turning it political. While I agree that we should always strive to keep discussions as non-combative, can anyone share additional tips for how to engage others in a healthy discussion without it spiraling into an inevitable me-against-you-and-here’s-how-you-are-wrong argument?