Sleeping with (or Being Related to) the Enemy

My friend and colleague Sheila Heen, co-author of the well-known book, Difficult Conversations, just wrote a wonderful column for the New York Times, entitled Sleeping with the (Political) Enemy, all about how she and her husband John Richardson (also a negotiation and conflict resolution expert) manage to communicate about their vast political differences.  I read it to my ADR class today, as we all wait with bated breath, for the outcome of the election tonight.  The fact of the matter is that, even if we are not sleeping with the political enemy, we are likely very close to them–either descended from them, sister to them, roomed with them in college, or otherwise generally enjoy their company as long as you are not discussing politics.  I know that the statistics say we are all moving to neighborhoods filled with like-minded people; that we all watch news networks that only support our point of view; and that we are drifting apart.  I hope that, whatever happens tonight, as one half of the country despairs about the sanity of the other half–we remember our similarities as well as our differences.  As Sheila put it,

when you marry across the divide, you have to give up things that provide the like-minded self-satisfied comfort. As tempting as it is, we can’t demonize those on the other side as idiots who are out of touch, because they’re liable to reach out across the dinner table to touch you (and rather sharply).

Being self-satisfied is not worth the narrow-mindedness of only talking to those who already agree with you.  I fully expect that we will all continue to have dinner together.

15 thoughts on “Sleeping with (or Being Related to) the Enemy”

  1. You might believe the idea that a law student generally enjoys the company of his ideological counterpart colleagues (let’s be honest – most law students don’t have significant others) as long as they’re not discussing politics. This might be true when they’re interacting “in person” in the real world, but a cursory glace at a law student’s Facebook page will convince you of one of the greatest truths of law student life: you might be able to play nice most of the time, but the passive aggressive political bickering always comes out when you’re behind a screen. But that’s because it’s harder to get hit while hiding behind one of those.

  2. The broad conclusions of Sheila Heen’s article are more interesting than details of her “mixed-politics” marriage. It is admirable that Heen and her husband are committed to raising compassionate children who utilize critical thinking skills; however, I submit that those ideals are somewhat compromised by their semi-annual practice of plastering their lawn with advertisements for both partisan candidates running for public office . Do yard signs, bumper stickers and Super-PAC-funded flash advertising encourage critical thinking skills? Each election, generations of American children are exposed each election to aggressive, bottom-barrel, simple-minded attack ads which are extremely effective both in maximizing voting turnouts as well as dumbing down political discussions at home and on TV. I do not envy parents like the Heens who have to explain why there is an angry-looking councilman or Senator cursing in grainy video footage every commercial break during election season.

  3. At the end of the day, everyone boils water the same way and puts on his or her pants one leg at a time. The stuff that happens in between can be contentious, but we can all shake hands when all is said and done.

  4. Erik brings up an interesting point that I, being a fellow Facebook user, also noticed. The past few months Facebook seemed to be more of a “political-network” than a “social-network.” People weren’t posting information about where they traveled over the weekend, pictures what their dog dressed up for to trick-or-treat, or even scores of recent Packer’s games. Rather, posts were almost exclusively political. . . the tones of these posts were both positive and negative.

    I think it will be interesting to see how future political campaigns approach social media. We all know that venues like Facebook have changed the way information can be disseminated. At the same time, I find it hard to believe that many (if any) votes were swayed in this years election by goofy/photoshopped pictures of either Romney or Obama.

    I think that true political activism only comes from actual “physical action.” If you want to support you candidate, get out from behind your computer and support them!

  5. I like that Eric and Kevin brought up social media’s role in political discourse. It forced me to reflect on my strategic “unfriending” of peers who repeatedly posted content that offended my own political sensibilities. As the Heen’s article illustrates, this strategy is not available when you are close to the opposition. Political debates with loved ones require critical listening skills and focus on issues rather than ad hominem attacks. Seeking common ground can be critical. Now that the elections are over, it would be encouraging to see elected leaders introduce more of these rhetorical strategies into national debates. I wonder how the political dialogue would change if instead of facing a fiscal cliff, politicians were faced with a night on the couch.

  6. Although I believe it is very important to appreciate differences in opinion, not just politically, I believe it is frustrating to get involved in in depth conversations regarding “controversial” topics. It is not because of the differing opinions; it is because of the lack of information. To address a couple of the previous posts, Facebook definitely became inundated with “political experts,” but the problem is that many of the political comments were from a misinformed mass. I believe it is easy, too easy in fact, for people to be swayed one way or the other, not by terrible political ads, but by what other people say, without getting their own information first. Personally, I did not post anything at all about politics on any social media because I know my own perspective, and I can appreciate that other people have their own perspectives, but most social media sites do not open the door for mature conversations or mature disagreements.

  7. This article merely exemplifies the “opposites attract” theory. Most of us know when two compassionate people talk about politics there can often be heated discussions, which turn into personal attacks. This is why a passive position on the argument probably would be well suited.

    No matter how well we form persuasive arguments for our position, people set on political beliefs will not change easily. People form political positions over years through their education and environment. So no matter how well we think we argued for the Democrat or Republican at the end of the day politics just presents another forum for couples to fight over. Political discussion in the home probably should be just left alone, and focus on the more important things in life that you as a couple have control over. ‘For Better or Worse’ should stand true, even if married to a Republican (or I suppose Democrat).

  8. This raises an interesting point, that we should learn to get along with those who we disagree with, because we’ll never know who we might end up spending most of out time with. The theory of ‘keeping your enemies closer’ seems to apply in that we should spend, in fact, more time with people we disagree with rather than with people we agree with. Rational and reasonable individuals tend to keep an open mind and should be able to adapt their views when they are confronted with an argument they might find persuasive yet leads to an outcome that they might have beforehand rejected. If you spend more time with individuals you disagree with then you might either (1) learn a new perspective on issues or (2) simply confirm the views you held before by taking the time to explore the other sides point of view and still decide that it wasn’t for you.

  9. I find it interesting that there is this hard and fast divide going straight up through the general public in the arena of politics. Like the present article claims, the people on the other side of the aisle are close to you; they are often your friends and family. So, why is there a divide of all these people into two halves? I tend to think that it is this exact political bickering that forces individuals to pick a side: Right or Left. This is really unfortunate, because if all individuals decided each political issue independently and at face-value, we would see more of a broad-spanning political spectrum that does not align people against each other, 50/50. Political disputes will transform from arguments into constructive discussion when people choose each issue for themselves, independent of what a party or ideology believes. A broad spectrum of political views will promote a more healthy discussion and understanding of political and social issues.

  10. I have noticed the facebook bickering that both Erik and Kevin alluded too. Although many times it ends up with non-issue name calling I do believe that it does help as people are forced to see the issues that are out there.

    Personally, having many friends across the aisle politically, I enjoy being around so many educated people. We are able to have constructive discussions that cause you to stop and think about the flaws of your own viewpoints. Although it never seems that anyone walks away from one of those debates changing their views completely, I do think it provides a way to see the other side and maybe question the vigor in which you hold your views.
    I think having friends our significant others helps up see the other side, where we are forced to listen to them. And judging that people are still speaking to one another in a civil manner after the election is now over, I think being near the “political enemy” can benefit all involved, even if we do so grudgingly during election times.

  11. As many of these posts have touched on, the role that social media plays in unveiling our political virtues was at its peak this election. As Alex points out, I can certainly relate to the unfriending of peers on facebook with regard to a difference in political opinions. During election campaigns, it seems impossible to escape someone from imposing their political views on you, whether on facebook or the random clip board holders who go door to door hoping their smiling face is going to be the one to lure me over to the other side. Things don’t work that way, 99% of the time. I would much prefer to hold our beliefs as we wish and express them when it counts; election day.

  12. Here are a couple great quotes from James Carville and his wife Mary Matalin on the matter:

    Matalin: Well, we’re not a democracy. We’re an enlightened MOM-archy. That’s what we are. [Cross talk.]
    Carville: I don’t — it’s nothing if — as long as one person is not arguing, there’s nothing to argue about. I don’t have a — [Laughter.]

    Carville: I don’t have a position on anything domestically. So I just say yes, and then go on and do it. I mean it. I would say the three ingredients to successful marriage is surrender, capitulation and retreat. If you’ve got those three things — [Laughter.]

    Matalin: Spoken like a true liberal. What a martyr. Faith, family and good wine. That’s how we do it.

  13. While I am not married, nor in a relationship, I can relate to Ms. Heen because I have both family members and close friends on differing sides of the political spectrum. I have a grandmother who turns the TV off every time George W. Bush, Paul Ryan or Mit Romney is interviewed. I have an uncle who whole-heartedly supports the Ryan Budget Plan. I have an aunt who calls it an unconscionable austerity plan. Another uncle believes the repeal of DADT endangers our troops. While another aunt is an outspoken supporter of marriage equality. I have friends who stood in front of the capital in Madison and protested for days on end. I have other friends who mocked them for it. One of my grandfathers is a Democratic. The other is a Republican. My parents geared up for the previous presidential debates like they were a 3-part Super Bowl. Meanwhile, my brother called me on his way to the voting booth and asked me to give him a ‘5 minute run-down’ of each candidate’s positions so he could make a ‘gut decision.’

    I have been politically active for most of my adult life. I have worked in the Wisconsin Senate, the British Parliament, and for a presidential campaign. But some of the most important political lessons I learned have come from discussions I’ve had with family and friends, whether they agree or disagree with my point-of-view. The ones who agree usually have a different basis for doing so, often something that relates more to their own life experiences. And the ones who disagree will often times offer alternative solutions that I may not have thought of, or they can provide support for arguments that I may have initially disregarded. I’ll admit, we don’t often come to an agreement. But because we are friends and family, there is an underlying respect for each other that (usually) forces us to listen to one another. And even when conversations do get tense, an hour later we come together for dinner, or studying, or a family movie, and it forces us to realizes that we cannot simply demonize everyone who disagrees with our opinions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *