On Monday I was driving a stranger to the polls and she asked about the children in the backseat of the car, and why they weren’t in school. When I said they were homeschooled, she smiled and said “now I know what religion you are” as though all homeschoolers are one religion. I smiled but didn’t respond to that. A few minutes later she told me that if she had young children now, she would homeschool them, because of all the bad things happening in schools these days. I admitted honestly I don’t know at all what happens in schools these days. I didn’t want to get into explaining the complex reasons why we are homeschooling, so I simply said that when my oldest was four and we could have put him in junior kindergarten, we decided against it, and when he was five, we still didn’t feel like he should go, and now he’s six and we’re happy with having the kids at home.
I’m writing about that experience because so many little details of it made me smile. First of all there was the comment about what religion I must be. I probably should have asked what religion she was guessing, because I know Quakers, Mennonites, and Baptist fundamentalists all who are homeschooling. I also know a great deal of atheists, and lots of spiritual-but-not-religious people. When I was telling this story to a friend of mine she guessed the woman meant Jehovah’s witnesses, because she knows there’s a big homeschool movement within that religious group. But I smile at the idea that we think we know something about someone because of one little detail of their life. I say “we” because I’m just as likely to do that as anyone, and this was a good reminder to me why not to.
So when she said that schools today are scary, I said I didn’t know anything about what was going on in schools, and I asked her what she knew, wondering a bit if I would hear stories of her grandchildren. She answered vaguely, that she had heard stuff on the news. I wonder what she heard. I wonder how it is in schools. Since most kids are in school, I’m kind of assuming that schools are still a reasonable place and most parents aren’t living in perpetual fear.
I was hearing her comments about schools and fear in the context of driving her to the polls. I was assuming she was voting NDP, because she had asked the NDP to arrange a ride for her. But I associate the politics of fear with the conservatives. That isn’t to say I thought that she was voting conservative because she said she heard things that would make her fear putting a child in schools. No. It’s that I associate the idea of having people afraid, promoting fear, with right-wing politics. Perhaps I’m wrong on this. I don’t know. But I am used to the idea that people vote for the conservatives because they fear things. I wonder why I make that assumption, and how valid it is or not. In some ways, I vote NDP because I fear things too. I fear our health care funding being cut. I fear we will continue to pollute our environment to the point that much of the planet will be unlivable. I fear lots of things. So why does the term “politics of fear” bring to my mind the conservatives?
When I sit and think all this over what I find myself very aware of the limitations of both perceptions and communication. I don’t know what schools are like and I’m fine not knowing. I talked to a homeschooling friend today, and her perception is that schools these days are really horrible. That’s her experience. Yet as the saying goes, “the plural of anecdote is not data,” so even if I found other people with similar experiences, it wouldn’t mean anything for sure. Yet at some point enough people’s experiences become relevant. At what point is that? And how can we get outside the echo chambers so many of us are apt to be caught in?
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Communication is tricky because everyone has their own assumptions about where the other person is coming from and how the world works.
Politics is tricky because there are so many assumptions out there. I don’t know what to think, when people disagree on politics. Are they disagreeing on facts or on values/relevance of the facts? Or are people disagreeing because something doesn’t fit their own unexamined assumptions about how the world should be? I don’t want to just assume others are misinformed because that seems condescending yet and because I really don’t trust my own judgement completely. My opinions can and do change, and I know I make mistakes on things, so when someone argues against me I really try not to take it for granted that I’m right and they’re wrong. Yet people rarely are willing to talk in depth enough to actually explain why they believe what they do where they are getting their information or why they think something. Sure, it isn’t anyone else’s job to educate me on things, but when people are consistently unable/unwilling to explain themselves it gets easy to question whether they are actually capable of it, and it gets easier and easier to dismiss their ideas as nonsense.
When people say “I believe this…” and they don’t want to get into the nitty gritty of why, then when we disagree we tend to be left with thinking some variation of “your wrong,” “your mininformed” or “your values are all screwed up.” Somehow it changes from being about the idea to being about the person. Ideas can end up seeming like hollow phantoms, unexplained and thus untouchable, so the only thing visible is the person holding them.
So what should do we do when we disagree? Just change the topic? But then as a society, what do we do? Let people only talk about things in their echo chambers where they know other people will agree with them? Then the lies get easier and the truth gets more lost and hidden. I know of Americans who feel like they cannot be friends with people from a different political party because they just don’t feel like they agree on anything. How can we bridge that gap? How can we start really constructive conversations about what we believe and why?
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Side note: I just started reading a book called The Spirit Level. It mentions the idea of evidence-based-medicine, and suggests we need evidence-based-politics. Is it possible to take a scientific look at policies? At how healthcare can be provided? How poverty can be defeated? Etc? Etc? There are “think tanks” out there on both sides of any political debate claiming that they have the answers and disagreeing with each other’s answers. Does that mean we shouldn’t trust any of them? Or that since they disagree we’re free to just go with whatever we feel or whatever fits into what we believe already?
There’s a number going around the internet that the combined margin by which the Conservatives won the 14 closest races was only 6,201 votes. So really if only a tiny, tiny portion of the population voted different (or voted at all) we would not have a Conservative majority. Our political system is a game, winner take all, yet the rules are arbitrary and not necessarily just. Did those 6,201 people in those specific ridings base their votes on knowledge of the political platforms? Probably in those 14 ridings there were quite a few people who based their votes on slur campaigns, misinformation, etc. Yet this is how decisions are made.
I know a lot of people are relieved the election is over because they want to go back to not having to think or talk about politics. But I hope that the next four years are filled with lots of discussion about politics. I think we need more talk, not less. We need talk about policies and how policies effect people (but remembering, of course, that the plural of anecdote is not data). We need talk about values. And hopes. And dreams.