Family Therapy Prepared Me For Dialogue In The Trump Era

It behooves liberals to mind our tone as we confront challenges under this new administration.
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If you live in this world, you have probably observed this: People don’t like being yelled at. They don’t like being told why they are wrong or that have done a bad job or failed. Say you get an email that tells you that you are “inept” and “deluded.” I have actually gotten such an email. You do not greet such an email by saying, “Gosh, that person is right. I am inept and deluded. I really should do something about that.” You certainly don’t feel inclined to apologize. Nor to work with that person in a cooperative spirit.

Given this, are we liberals taking the wrong tack? I am as scared as I have ever been about what is going on in my country. I think Donald Trump is mentally ill, and I am horrified by the way that a man with an agenda and beliefs shared by the minority of the country has, by an apparently democratic process (though who knows given the election tampering) been installed in the White House. I plan to go to a march in Boston on January 21, and I have been calling my Congressmen regularly. I have been signing email petitions and donating money to organizations that strike me as particularly important right now, including the Southern Poverty Law Center.

But I am also wondering how any of this is going to protect the United States from what appears headed our way. Perhaps, this is naïve—it is naïve if the comparisons people have been making to Weimar Germany are in any way fair—but I wonder if we should take a tip from… well, my family therapist. My family therapist got my husband, son, and I to change patterns that were bringing us into conflict and encouraged us to use “When I” statements, as in, “When you do blank, I feel blank.” Simple enough. Rather than attack a person, make clear what the effect of that person’s action is. If someone says (as my son did to me), “When you eat the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream that I asked you to buy for me, I feel disrespected,” I think, “Well, I certainly don’t want my son to feel disrespected.” Might it be better to say to our congressmen, “When you talk about repealing Obamacare, I feel frightened about how people are going to afford healthcare?” Or even, “When you talk about defunding Planned Parenthood, I feel scared about how young women in this country, especially poor young women, are going to get the information and medical services they need?” Or “When you don’t more forcefully come out against racism in this country, I feel minorities aren’t safe?”

The burden on the person who hears this is to respond to the actual need in the speaker. You don’t hear someone tell you that they feel disrespected and think, “Goddamn it, that’s because I want you to feel disrespected!” You say, “I’d hate for you to feel disrespected,” and then you actually think about your own behavior. (I’ve laid off the Ben and Jerry’s, though it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that it was the right thing to do. Before, I was just annoyed at my son for making such a big deal about such a small thing.) What’s more, when someone tells you how they feel, you must address that feeling rather than defend yourself. Things shift away from the ad hominem. While it’s easy enough to make ad hominem arguments against so many soon to be in power, it doesn’t exactly advance our cause, which isn’t to put other people down, but to prevent harmful policies from being enacted and to protect civil rights.

We are in a democracy, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now, especially given the elected president doesn’t seem much engaged with the will of the people. If he were a man capable of saying, “I am the president for all of you. I will serve all of you,” he would be a very different person than he is. He would have picked a very different cabinet than he has.

What then to do? If the woman who called me inept and deluded had instead said, “When you do blank, it makes me feel ignored and disrespected,” which was, I think, what she was feeling, I would have said, “I don’t want you to feel ignored or disrespected. What can I do?” And I would have meant it. And I would have done what I could do to make things better. Decent people do not want to make other people feel ignored or disrespected.

What I have to say to my congressmen today is “When you approve Trump’s cabinet appointments, I feel scared. I feel scared for minorities, the LGBT community, the poor, and women, particularly young women. I feel scared about what will happen to our public schools. I feel scared about the health of our planet. I feel confused about who will be helped by the proposed changes.”

And what I hope is that if we all say this—if we drop the “You are all bigoted clowns” approach—they will hear us and ask us what they can do to answer our needs, to make us less scared, and we will tell them, and perhaps they will hear us. Perhaps they will do it.

Oh, I know it is wishful thinking in many, many ways, and I’m well aware that it is an evil not to call out an evil. And yet, if our goal is to improve things, not simply to have the moral high ground, what other way forward?

Note: As of January 31, 2017, I no longer believe what I wrote in this post. The comments hear represent a faulty sense of who we were dealing with in the Trump administration. I don’t think the sort of polite conflict resolution I imagined is possible. Only protest. Debra Spark

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