Circles of Concern: How to Talk Politics

The bad news is…well, there’s a hell of a lot of it. But the good news is that many people are choosing to engage in politics and protest in a way they never have before. Which is awesome, and the main thing that gives me hope these days. But the thing is, like anything else you’ve never done before, it’s easy to engage awkwardly and feel ineffective or get chastised by someone who you identified as being on your side, and then feel discouraged. Which makes it harder, rather than easier, to take the next bold step.

We need to be in conversation. We need to be in difficult conversations about oppression and liberation, and we need to be in difficult conversations with people we love who hold convictions that we find abhorrent. We need protests and immediate action, but we also need the long-term, profound change that only happens through people talking with one another through their differences.

So how do we do that? I think that we could start by understanding that we need different conversations with different people. To help clarify this, I have actually made a picture. If you don’t know me, you don’t know how remarkable this is. This is how committed I am to this conversation. I actually made a picture. I didn’t say it was a good picture.

But here’s the point of the picture: We all come into conversations from a different perspective. Some of us have been activists for years and some of us are just coming in. Some of us are extremely threatened personally by present political realities, some of us are worried about our loved ones and some of us are concerned for society in general. And, of course, some of us aren’t concerned at all. My circles of concern aren’t meant to be an absolute declaration of who belongs where, but rather to suggest what I’m talking about in general. It’s up to you to figure out what circle of concern you belong to.

Circles of Concern

As I have it (labeled in print so small as to be completely indistinguishable) there is an innermost circle including undocumented immigrants, trans people and Black Lives Matter activists—which is to say any people whose experience of oppression is intense, ongoing and potentially life-threatening, and people who have already committed to activism as a lifestyle which involves risking life and limb.

The next circle out includes people of color, documented immigrants, Muslims, lesbians, gays, bisexuals…anyone who belongs to a group that not only stands to lose from this administration but also has reason to fear escalated levels of hate crimes. Recently, Jews seem to fall into this category as well. These are people who likely have had to deal with prejudice on a personal basis and may well have experience fighting for their civil rights.

The next circle out would be straight, cis-gender, white liberals and progressives. The circle outside that contains moderates/undecideds/apolitical folk. Conservatives go in the outmost ring. Again, for any of these circles you could argue about who belongs where, and make distinctions based on income, class status growing up, etc., etc. That’s kind of not the point. Make your own judgment about what circles you and the people you know occupy (and be ready to re-evaluate). Also, all of these circles presume different perspectives but with basic good faith. There is no circle for trolls and bigots. Some conversations just aren’t worth having, unless it’s a situation in which it matters that other people see that the bigot/troll perspective is not the only one.

OK, now that all that is set up, here are the guidelines. They are pretty straightforward. I use “in” to refer to moving toward the center of the concentric circles, and “out” for moving toward the larger circles.

1) Listen in. Listen to and learn from the people who are in circles further toward the center than you. Listen as far in as you can. Read books, read blogs, talk to friends. But listen. Listening does not mean that you have to agree. You don’t. But listen first, and if you need to muster arguments, do that later. And don’t bring those arguments back to the people in the center circle. Odds are very good they don’t want to hear it. Listen, learn, and if something makes you uncomfortable, just sit with that. It’s OK to be uncomfortable and just observe that. Deciding who is right and who is wrong is less important than you might think in this situation.

2) Complain and seek support across. It’s fine to vent, and to ask people to reassure you. Do that with people who are inside your own personal circle. The people in circles further in from you are likely to be overwhelmed with their own problems, or resentful that you are just now coming to realize something that they’ve been dealing with for a long time. The people in circles further out are likely to not get what you’re talking about, and tell you why you shouldn’t be upset. With people from your own circle you have the best chance of being met and understood and comforted.

3) Request one circle out. There are a lot of people of good will who don’t know what to do. Really, none of us does in any absolute way. Sure, you can resent people who came to this more recently than you, or seem clueless, but that doesn’t change anyone’s behavior. Go to one circle out from you to bring people in. Be as concrete as possible. Would you come with me to this protest? Would you call your senator at this number? Would you donate to this organization? Would you bring pizza to this sit-in? The clearer and more specific you can be about what you want, the more likely you are to get it. And the more likely the person who you ask will feel good about your request and their ability to participate. Which makes them more likely to participate the next time, even with more difficult tasks.

4) Tell stories two circles out. People two circles out from you aren’t necessarily ready for a request. You might be coming from very different perspectives. The best way to connect is to use your own story to explain your fears and hopes. Listen to the story of the person you are talking with. Again, you don’t have to agree in order to listen. Prioritize telling and hearing stories over convincing the person. Ironically, hearing one another’s stories is about the only way to change someone’s point of view.

None of us can do everything. All of us can do something. But let’s do what we can in the ways that are likely to be the most effective, and the most joyful. If you can approach creating change with a spirit of both curiosity and creativity you will have brought your very best tools to this work that can change your own life, as well as the country as a whole.

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