Let’s talk: why we need to have hard conversations

Wednesday, August 5, 2020 - 2:23pm

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Illustration by Hibah Mirza

Editor's Note: The Michigan Daily has used several anonymous sources to report this story, as indicated by changed names with attached asterisks. This was done with the intent of honoring our sources’ requests to be quoted anonymously due to privacy concerns from their family and peers. 

 

No matter how late I wake up, I somehow find a way to delay my day by a solid hour. This slow-moving deja-vu usually involves copious amounts of TikTok and refreshing my Instagram feed so many times that the app should crash in protest to my boredom. Sometimes, my laziness reaches a peak level in which I move into a whole other world: Twitter. And one morning during my social media deep dive, I noticed this tweet: 

These are the names of the police who shot and killed Breonna Taylor while she was asleep in her bed. They were not arrested on July 2, the day this was tweeted, and they still have not been arrested. The names caught my attention, but the Twitter user baffled me. I clicked on her profile and my suspicions were found to be correct: @claudiamconwayy is the daughter of Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President, and George Conway, renowned conservative. I began to scroll through Claudia’s posts, and was soon reading a full-on family feud from my bed. My surprise was quickly replaced by awe and respect, as Claudia repeatedly and publicly tore down her parents’ views (in many since-deleted tweets) and informed her over 100,000 followers that her parents were trying to silence her by deleting her social media accounts. 

It is not uncommon for family members to hold different political beliefs. A recent study conducted by The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute found that “39 percent of respondents said they see political diversity within their families.” Most family disputes do not play out as publicly as the Conway’s, but the stress of political debates within families is increasing in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. Social media has served as an important vehicle in disseminating the messages of BLM, and many of us are learning about allyship through these platforms. One of the most important ways to be an anti-racist ally is by taking the steps to not only educate yourself, but also educate your friends and family about the many injustices Black people face in this country. Black Lives Matter is inherently a human rights issue more so than a political debate, and should be treated as such. Yet amid this truth, political elements are ingrained in the discussions surrounding it. The topic continues to spark arguments and conflicts among families and friends who have experienced a lifetime of white privilege.  

It’s no secret that politics have become increasingly polarized since President Trump’s election in 2016. Researchers and journalists alike have since been fascinated with the family feuds caused by his election, and the intensely divergent viewpoints are clear. According to an article written by Ashley Fetters in The Atlantic, “in 2019, 35 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Democrats said they would be unhappy if their child married someone of the opposing political party—a sharp increase from attitudes 50 years ago.” Not only is this a drastic change in mindset, but it is a strong perspective to hold. 

Ross sophomore Dana Schoolsky felt this polarization when she tried to explain the importance of Black Lives Matter to her dad. After sending him articles about the movement, “he sent me an email saying that I’m a communist because the originator of Black Lives Matter has communist views, and then I started to cry,” she said.  

Similarly, Izzy* grew up in a household where other viewpoints were often not discussed. “I literally was taught that liberalism was a disease, like a mental illness, so I have watched Fox since birth. That is what I’ve been exposed to, so if we had these conversations it would be very one sided,” Izzy said. 

Although her experience is somewhat extreme, parents tend to at least attempt to pass on their political views to their children. Jeffrey Lyons, a political science professor at Boise State University, told The Atlantic that “if parents set kids down (a partisan) path early in life, it becomes more difficult to deviate.” They’re not always successful, especially during turbulent political circumstances, but parents often create insular environments. Today, however, is a turbulent political circumstance. 

This polarized environment has made people less willing to discuss issues with people who do not share their same beliefs. A Pew Research study done in 2018 demonstrated that people on both sides of the aisle find discussing politics with people they disagree with to be “stressful and frustrating.” 57 percent of Democrats feel this way, which is a significant jump from the 45 percent who felt this way only two years earlier. Republican opinion on this topic, however, has increased by only 1 percent, from 48 to 49 percent. Regardless of who is more frustrated, these statistics are problematic. The more agitated people become, the less likely dialogue will happen. Even more discouraging is that the “majority of Americans (63 percent) say that when discussing politics with people they disagree with they find they usually have less in common politically than they thought.” Those who try to have productive conversations end up more dispirited and beaten down than they were before. 

The divisive political climate has deterred many of us from broaching these topics with our loved ones. Hyper-political news stories at the dinner table and microaggressions during family gatherings may have been avoided and ignored before, but that is no longer acceptable — something many should have realized long ago. Black Lives Matter has instilled how important these conversations are, regardless of their level of toughness and discomfort. And many young people have been engaging in them, especially with their parents. 

Schoolsky recently began confronting her dad about his refusal to wear a mask and his misunderstandings surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. After George Floyd’s muder, Schoolsky started to read articles and fact-check widely disseminated Instagram posts. In turn, she learned about the effect of COVID-19 on Black communities and was struck by the inequality of these health outcomes. When they went to restaurants, her dad would wear his mask below his nose and each time she confronted him resulted in more and more frustration. Their constant arguments reached a head when she went to a protest against police brutality. She took precautions like wearing a mask and attempting to social distance, but her dad compared her attendance of a protest mid-pandemic to going to a music festival. “He doesn’t really seem to get that it’s an important movement… yes, it’s political, but you still have to recognize that racism isn’t just putting people down because they’re Black. There’s so much more to it. I just wish he’d come around and be a little more accepting and wear his mask,” Schoolsky said. 

Similarly, Cameron* broke down in tears after George Floyd’s murder. She was upset about seeing such a clear instance of police brutality, but was also “so overwhelmed by how ignorant I had been, and I was overwhelmed by how they (her parents) wanted me to be ignorant.” Fox News was a fixture in her house, constantly playing on the TV, but politics were avoided as a topic of discussion. She, too, sought to educate herself about the inequalities suppressing Black Americans. Cameron read The New Jim Crow and was fascinated by the gripping and undeniable evidence about police bias. “That book definitely helped me see that this isn't something people just talk about; it’s actually happening. I had the privilege to not pay attention to it because it didn’t impact me,” Cameron said. She brought up these concerns with her parents, but was met with heated arguments nearly every night. After weeks of living in this environment, she felt “worn down” by her parents’ lack of understanding. 

After each of them started to educate themselves, they started to try to educate their parents. Although they weren’t always successful, Cameron and Dana created well-thought out strategies to try to communicate with their parents about their beliefs. Dana tries to find articles that include statistics about mass incarceration, police brutality, and COVID-19 disparities to present to her dad. “Anything that has statistics he seems to believe,” she said. Cameron’s mom is a doctor and also tends to be swayed by statistical facts. Cameron found five academic research papers all addressing different injustices faced by the Black community and highlighted important methods used by the researchers, as well as statistics. Before presenting them to her mom, Cameron searched for gaps in the information or points of controversy. “I knew I couldn’t come in ignorant. I had to try to find problems in the studies so that I could anticipate what the problem she was gonna bring up would be,” Cameron said. 

Cameron’s tactics proved to be successful in convincing her dad to take down his Blue Lives Matter car magnet. Her dad expressed to her that he felt bad for the police and wanted them to know he supported them if he were to be pulled over. Taken aback by this statement, Cameron knew that she needed to learn more about the symbol and how it came to be offensive. She found that it was used in the 2017 Charlottesville protests by neo-Nazis and is considered to be associated with white supremacy. “It makes sense he wouldn’t know what the background of that symbol was because mostly he watches Fox News and reads the Wall Street Journal which tends to lean more towards the right when you’re talking about politics. So then I sent him a whole article from the Marshall Project and they did a deep delve into the history of the Thin Line Flag,” she said. He immediately took it down after reading her texts. 

Melissa* and Izzy took a different approach. They tried to appeal to their parents’ emotions and empathy. Melissa’s parents are both lawyers, so she said she thought they would relate to the film Just Mercy. The movie is a gut-wrenching true story about a Black man wrongly convicted of murder and how the Equal Justice Initiative helps appeal his sentence in court. Her parents were unphased. Izzy, on the other hand, had more success. She showed her mom a Facebook post written by a well-respected Black professor accounting his arrest after being pulled over for a supposed traffic violation. “I think maybe the first hand account kind of helped but I feel like it only stuck with her because she was like oh a professor, smart, academic, cares about education, but I’m happy it somewhat got to her,” Izzy said. Her mom was able to put herself in this man’s shoes through his post, but this kind of success was scarce, as the man’s profession should not matter — racial discrimination is still racial discrimination regardless of circumstances. 

Melissa perfectly described the frustration vocalized by so many. “To watch people be horrible sucks but it’s also doubly disappointing because you spend your whole life growing up idolizing your parents and thinking your parents are these superheroes, and they’re the best people and you wanna be like them. And then you grow up, and you are put in situations like this. They fail you miserably, so that’s really hard too. It’s like a giant disappointment as a kid.”

When these are the outcomes, it’s not surprising that people want to avoid these topics entirely. 

Talking about politics is frustrating, but since George Floyd’s death, more and more people are passionately discussing issues of injustice with their families. Cameron and Schoolsky were sophomores in high school when Trump was elected and didn’t have particularly strong feelings about their parents’ decision to vote for him. Cameron was consistently told that politics didn’t belong at the dinner table, and Schoolsky didn’t feel like she had the conviction to voice her frustrations. “I feel like as a 16-year-old it’s hard to yell at your dad. When I was in high school I just took it,” Dana said. In high school, you already fight with your parents over curfews and homework, so why add politics into the mix? 

But for many college-aged students, Trump’s inauguration marked a pivotal point in our teenage years and our views likely formed around this experience. As we develop more educated opinions throughout our time in college, many of us feel a stronger urge to vocalize what we feel is right, and Black Lives Matter has only catalyzed these urges. “I did not support BLM (Black Lives Matter) until this year, and it just took finally seeing the nation in complete shit and then figuring it out. It’s unfortunate that I waited this long, and had my parents not indoctrinated me from day one it would not have taken this long,” Izzy said. 

People are not only emboldened to speak up about Black Lives Matter, but they’ve gained courage to confront their parents about other issues important to them. “This has brought up a whole slew of other political issues like the economy, immigration, racial justice, women’s rights, etc. It’s kind of bringing everything else into the light that we kind of tiptoed around before,” Melissa said. 

Taking the time to have these tough conversations and not tip-toe is truly a good thing, but why is it so hard? 

One explanation is that some people suffer from belief superiority. Kaitlin Raimi, Assistant Professor at the Ford School of Public Policy, described belief superiority as “the belief that your own opinions are more objectively correct than other opinions.” This concept applies mainly to people who hold extreme beliefs in any direction, which accounts for only 10 percent of the population. Regardless, many people, especially those who exhibit belief superiority, have selective attention when it comes to their political views; they purposefully pay attention to information that confirms their own opinions. “When we force people to read articles that either agree or disagree with them, what we find is that people who think that their beliefs are superior end up feeling even more certain about their beliefs no matter what the content of that article,” Raimi said. 

A study done by Assistant Professor of Psychology at University of Southern California Jonas Kaplan reached similar results. He looked into how people neurologically react when they are shown evidence against their political beliefs. “Identity is inherently political, so when people feel like their identity is being attacked or challenged, they seize up,” Kaplan said in a Vice article. Politics are emotional, so we often ignore our logical reasoning when confronted with political ideas we don’t agree with. 

Luckily there are some strategies you can use to try to get through to your family members. Raimi quoted another U-M professor, Professor of Political Science Arthur Lupia, who said, “persuasion is an away game, so if you’re trying to persuade somebody, you’re on their turf and you have to play by their rules.” Essentially, you need to find methods of persuasion that appeal to their values while remembering your role in the situation. Attacking the other person will almost never work, but finding common ground can be helpful. Cameron learned this the hard way. In trying to educate her parents, they would often get defensive and upset when they thought their views were being attacked. In order to mediate this, she began watching her parents’ favorite Fox News broadcast, The Tucker Carlson Show, with them. She was able to show them that she respected their perspectives, while also beginning to understand why they believed what they did. Now when approaching a political discussion, she says “I understand why you think this, but I also think that the consequences are x, y, z.” This method creates an environment of compassion and room for constructive debate. 

The American Psychological Association also provides many helpful tips about managing political conversations. They urge people to guide the conversation into a more positive direction by finding areas where you agree, remaining calm, and having conversation goals. However, Raimi and the APA both stressed the necessity of knowing when to end the conversation and accepting that you may not change someone’s mind. Although political discussion is important, there does come a time when you won’t agree and continuing the conversation is harmful to your relationship. 

Our democracy is built on the ideals of free speech and open discussion. We’ve all seen Hamilton on Disney+. Lin Manuel Miranda debates his opposition like he’s running out of time (see what I did there). But there really is value to hearing other peoples’ opinions and reasoning. Instead of defaulting to frustration, we need to be open-minded to political discussion with those across the aisle. By finding common ground, we can learn how to best approach a difficult conversation and deliver important points in the most effective way. We all need to unlearn the years of oppression built into our society and teach ourselves and others how to be actively anti-racist, but this is best achieved through open and honest conversation. Political debate is healthy and should be encouraged, not shied away from, even if it is difficult. Still, politics are not the focus of Black Lives Matter. Our country is finally recognizing the centuries of abuse inflicted upon Black communities, so we must use this momentum to educate the people we care about. As Claudia Conway demonstrated, even if it’s hard, now is not the time to stay silent.