What Language Might Heal Our Family Feud?

By Bear Gebhardt

Let’s pretend that I have an Uncle Waldo and a Cousin Fritz and a Sister Kate, all of whom were part of the minority who voted for the current Minority President. (How could they!) What am I supposed to say to them? How do I say it?

Bear Gebhardt is a writer who lives in Fort Collins, Colo. Learn more about him…

I also need to come up with a strategy to talk with those folks on my very block—that construction guy and his wife and that young kid with the motorboat—who actually put up his signs in their front yards.  How do I talk with them?  These folks are, after all, my family, my neighbors.

Do I just not talk to them ever again? Is the gulf between us now so deep, so vast and unbridgeable that further communication will forever be impossible? When I get together with them do I just not mention that huge, snorting (GOP) elephant in the room? How would my grandma and grandpa feel about such a chasm of “non-talk,” here in the family? Or, God forbid, might grandpa and grandma been part of that minority who voted for him (egads!). How do I get out of this family?

Alas, I can’t. We can’t.

We can’t resign from our families. And I doubt we could find a new neighborhood where no one voted for him.

Talk about it: One strategy, of course—a strategy many of us have been forced to adopt here in the early months of this new administration run by the minority 1 percent—is simply not talking about it. But this seems a rather inelegant, inartistic, maybe even cowardly approach to the problem. But simply to keep the peace, it’s a strategy many of us generously, regularly employ.

But, when the time and place are right, I sincerely do want to talk with Uncle Waldo and Cousin Fritz and Sister Kate, in a way that honors grandma and grandpa, about this bully elephant here trampling through the family gardens. The damage being done is simply too great not to talk about it.  It might, at first, be just a quick talk, a casual aside, but something needs to be done—said—to repair the communication breakdown here in the American family. The rift that has opened in our family in these times is as deep now as it was during the American Revolution, and the Civil War. We must begin to heal this communication breakdown before it becomes irreparable.

But how do we even begin?

The U.S.-Mexican border is not the only place where a wall exists. Americans find that communication walls about Trump and other political issues severely divide their own friends and family members.

George Lakoff, a retired Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, suggests “The first thing that …should be, taught about political language is not to repeat the language of the other side or negate their framing of the issue, In general, negating a frame just activates the frame and makes it stronger.”

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Lakoff goes on to observe that, The Clinton campaign consistently violated the lesson [not to repeat the language of the other side or negate their framing. The Clinton Campaign] kept running ads showing Trump forcefully expressing views that liberals found outrageous. Trump supporters liked him for forcefully saying things that liberals found outrageous. They were ads paid for by the Clinton campaign that raised Trump’s profile with his potential supporters!

Don’t empower: It seems like we, the majority, who did not vote for this one-percenter President, all too often fall into the same damned trap. We repeat his exact words and outlandish frames and the words and frames of his millionaire/billionaire buddies he put into positions of power. We repeat them because to us the words and frames sound so obviously outlandish and off the rails. But such repetition just reinforces and empowers those outlandish viewpoints, and keep his base actively supporting him.

Here are a few of the lessons we need to learn to begin to repair the communication “bridge out”:

  • Personal attacks on Trump give energy and credence to Trump.
  • Calling him names gives credence to his own name calling.
  • Making fun of his supporters makes them support him more strongly.

So, how do we begin to talk again with our neighbors and Uncle Waldo, Cousin Fritz and Sister Kate?

Here’s the challenge: We must deeply listen to the real issues behind the fiery words, and then think deeper, feel deeper.

We must look behind the words they give us, beyond the frames they draw.

Erase fears: And then we need to change the language. We need to listen to them, to what they are worried about, what issues they are afraid of. And then think deeper. And offer new frames, new language, to ease their fears. (Wide ranging fear—on both sides—is the dark force that has caused the “bridge out” communication chasm now present. To repair the bridge, we need to lessen the fear.)

Again, it’s worth repeating, as Lakoff observes: The first thing that should be, taught about political language is not to repeat the language of the other side or negate their framing of the issue.

So when Uncle Waldo suggests we should “Build a Wall,” we might first commiserate and agree that current efforts to keep out illegal immigrants just isn’t working. And then taking baby steps we change the frame, if only slightly, “As we all know, we already have 700 miles worth of fences, and concrete barriers and barbed wire, along much of the U.S. border, and how well is that working?”

Offer alternative views: And then we might laugh, remind Uncle Waldo what a great country we (already) have, and that the reason they sneak into the country is because of how much money they can make compared to their own country. If I could make $5,000.00 in a month washing dishes in a restaurant in Canada, I would probably sneak across that border if I couldn’t get a visa. Our own American farmers have been telling us we could go a long way to fix the undocumented worker problem simply by issuing more H2A  visas, get the farmers the help they need, legally. And in the same way we need to issue more J-1, H-3, H2B, L1 visas—help American businesses get the manual labor they need, but legally.  If we granted more visas, offered more work documents, we wouldn’t have so many undocumented workers!

I suspect Uncle Waldo would have to agree, at least a smudge. Again, let’s think deeper, wider, using the facts.

When Cousin Fritz demands, “America First,” we might ask him who should be second? And then ask him if he drinks coffee or eats bananas, and where do we get these wonderful things?

When Sister Kate suggests we “block refugees,” we might suggest the first step might be to stop bombing, stop creating more homeless people.

Instead of talking about “sanctuary cities,” we might talk about “world friendly cities.” Instead of using the words “Fake News,” we can agree that we desperately need “fact-based stories,” that can be verified. We DON’T repeat the Minority Man’s words.

And that’s the point: We must learn not to repeat their words, not to challenge their frames. As Cesar Chavez said, “Our language is the reflection of ourselves. A language is an exact reflection of the character and growth of its speakers.”

Let’s think deeper, think wider, about the issues behind their fearful words and frames. Let’s bravely, openly and lovingly speak our own language, and thus take steps toward healing this painful family rift.

 

 

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6 thoughts on “What Language Might Heal Our Family Feud?

  1. Excellent piece Bear and I like the idea of engaging “the other side.” How bad can it get, assuming you’re not dealing with someone on an adrenaline high (or something worse)? I know plenty of Trump voters who are decent people. Sometimes there’s room for levity such as when one couple told me they voted for Trump because they didn’t like Hillary. I cheerfully admitted, ‘Hey, I didn’t like Hillary either. But I voted for her.” There was no need to attack their boy, I just left it at that.

    Like

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