As I've grown older I've come to see the less confrontational style as being productive, especially in terms of critique and understanding. The lure of ideology is that it doesn't only give you things to believe in and to cherish and give you a political place in the world; it also gives you a screen through which you can filter every possible opposing view. It gives you protection against the world, an insulation which gives you the ability to know much, without knowing anything. When you have debates, whether they be real or imaginary, you already know what your opponents will say. You already anticipate it and are already ready for it. Even if you aren't really ready, ideology is meant to make you feel as if you are ready. It is for this reason that people often feel like winning an ideological battle is primarily about entrenching yourself and re-entrenching yourself. It is about reinforcing your beliefs and staying more pure and truer to your ideological position. The other side is reduced to caricature, shadows on the wall of a philosophical cave and not much else. Focus on yourself, since your opponents don't have anything valuable to say anyways.
From a certain pragmatic standpoint this makes sense. If you are so entrenched on one side, why would you assume that the other side would not be so as well? Why would you assume that for some reason your opponents would be more open than you are?
One of the strange things about life is that truth and understanding are not always found in the same place. Truth can appear anywhere and can be felt in anything. There are after all a multitude of truths, every perspective can have one and anyone can believe in one. To adhere to a truth does not require an understanding of it. To feel like you know the truth does not require that you understand what you are believing in. That is why religion can be such a powerful force, because it can offer you the great truths of the universe, where understanding them is not necessary, only simple faith required. Understanding something or attempting to understand something can make the truth feel mappot, difficult. It can make it move back and forth across the spectrum of possibility. Appearing at one point as if a certainty and the next as an impossibility.
I am committed to truth, but I am also committed to understanding and to knowing. While in any debate it can be easy to just take a side, that provides you answers and responses, but it does not help you to understand the issue. Understanding comes from knowing something from multiple angles and that requires that you open yourself to something, even if just tactically or strategically, to allow its ideological structure to become known or be felt. That requires that you let your ideological guard down or set it aside for a moment. It is something that most people don’t like to do because it does pose a threat to the version of yourself who finds comfort and safe meaning in your current ideological state. It may mean that you have to start to question things about your beliefs about yourself and that generally doesn’t feel nice.
When I meet people I don’t like or whom I vehemently disagree with I sometimes do feel the urge to challenge them, to give them a piece of my mind and to unleash some purist ideological fury. I feel this urge, but I rarely do this. What I usually do instead, is I listen. I let them do most of the talking, and let them kind of say what they would like because I always find that it helps my understanding of the issue. Hearing someone when they feel like they are winning, when they feel like they have a sympathetic audience can be very valuable since you can hear versions of your opponent’s ideology that you might not hear otherwise. Understanding your opposition can risk you developing sympathies, but it can also enhance your understanding of your own position. It can make you better able to counter and critique opposing views.
There are certain people that I critique in the world, and I always wonder how I would act if I ever saw them in person. In the film Frost/Nixon, one hilarious episode takes place that brings this to mind. While David Frost is preparing to conduct an interview with Richard Nixon, he hires analysts to help give him journalistic ammo so that he can take Nixon to task for the crimes he committed against the country he was supposed to lead. One of the researchers is very critical of Nixon, and basically makes it seem as if he will spit in Nixon’s face when he meets him. The day of the interview arrives and when the analyst is face to face with Nixon he “chickens out” and meekly and respectfully shakes Nixon’s hand and referring to him as “Mr. President.”
Even though this is my position I do admire those who are willing to confront and challenge people they meet and force them to reckon with an opposing ideology. What got me thinking of this is when I read the post below from Bruce Gagnon on his blog “Organizing Notes.” It describes the way he respectfully challenges a southern Senator whom he ran into while sitting in the airport at Atlanta.
"Talking with Saxby"
As I was sitting here in the Atlanta, Georgia airport and posting on my blog I heard a familiar voice sitting next to me. I recognized it from watching Congressional debate on C-SPAN. I looked over and sure enough, it was conservative Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA).
I figured I needed to use this chance to say something about Afghanistan since the newspaper he was holding in his hand had a front page story about the U.S. soldier killing 16 innocent civilians in that war torn country.
I introduced myself and told the senator that I am a member of Veterans For Peace. I told him that we needed to get out of Afghanistan right away. He said, "Headlines like this don't help us." But he went on to defend the U.S. military occupation saying that we have to stay until new effective leadership can be developed. He said the people there were not capable of running their own affairs.
I asked him how much we are spending there every month and he quickly replied, "Oh, about $10 billion." I told him we need that money back here at home and that what we spend in one year in Afghanistan could cover all the debt in states across the country that are now in the red.
He kept saying that we are going to be there a long time - and I again pressed him by asking why we have to stay. Was it China? Was it the Caspian Sea pipeline routes through Afghanistan and Pakistan?
Surprisingly he responded that, "It's more about Russia."
I told him he was losing the hearts of the American people on this and he replied, "Yeah, I know that is right."
I then told him that every criminal has an MO - a modus operandi - and that this criminal syndicate called the military industrial complex has one and I'd seen it in operation since the Vietnam War.
At that point he was anxious to move. He thanked me for my service to the country. I responded that I was still serving the country by opposing these current wars.
He got up and left.