What is partisan? Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more

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[Image description: A picture with the profiles of a dog and a cat, staring at each other. The dog is on the left. The top of its head is black, the band around its eyes is brown, and the band around its nose is white. The cat is on the right. It is mainly black, with a white nose and mouth and a thin streak of brown down its forehead. Neither of the animals’ bodies is shown.]

OK, everyone, we need to have a talk. Due to the current political climate, I’ve been noticing that many of us have been more curt and on attack-mode lately. The simplest disagreement sets off chains of arguments. Tension builds, insults fly, and someone ends up stabbed in the spleen. And that’s just over the Oxford Comma. #OxfordCommaForever #OxfordCommasSaveLives #ILoveYouOxfordComma #WillYouMarryMeOxfordComma

I’ve suggested some general agreements to help us have more civil conversations with one another when we don’t agree, rules like “Assume the best intention,” “Seek to understand,” and “No matter how angry you get, don’t bite anyone.” Let’s agree to be nicer to one another, OK? And let’s just be nicer to everyone, even the clueless turd donkeys who don’t agree with you and thus are clearly ugly and wrong.

So instead of snarky responses like “Jealous much?” how about “I disagree”? Instead of “Your privilege is showing,” how about “What you said is an example of privilege”? Instead of “You are so gross and thoughtless,” how about “Jason, would you mind not clipping your toenails during staff meetings”? Let’s give one another the benefit of the doubt and not just assume that everyone is intentionally trying to be a-holes, all right? The world is tense, scary, and volatile enough as it is; we don’t need to turn on one another.

Many of the tensest arguments we get into nowadays, especially online, are around political matters, even if they don’t start off as political. It often goes like this:

Person 1: Apples are amazing
Person 2: Are you saying oranges are not?
Person 1: WTF does that have to do with anything?! You probably voted for [politician], didn’t you?!
Person 2: Aw, is the special snowflake getting offended?!
Person 1: People like you are the reason the Apocalypse is coming!
Person 2: Go back to reading your fake news about apples! You’re probably even a fake snowflake!
Person 3: This is the worst parenting forum ever…

Let’s get serious for a moment. Many of us are now terrified of participating in any online conversations on any subject. Many of them quickly become uncivil, and inevitably someone will be accused of being a partisan hack, and the conversation only devolves from there.

I believe we as a sector need to have more conversations about policies, especially when these policies severely damages communities and perpetuate racism, sexism, Islamophobia, ableism, and other forms of injustice. We must speak out against policies and beliefs that foster injustice, and we must advocate more. Civil rights and human rights are not partisan. Fighting to protect our communities is not partisan. We may disagree with one another about stuff, but disagreement itself is not partisan. We need to end this belief that whenever someone says something we disagree with, they’re being partisan and need to be shut down.

The problem may be that we don’t really have an agreement about what actually constitutes partisanship, and what is just a difference of opinion. So let’s discuss that today. Here’s my definition of partisan, mainly as applied to conversations, subject to feedback and future revisions: “Unwavering loyalty to a political party, often manifesting in personal attacks and/or the questioning of the motives of people considered to be on opposing sides.”

Personal attacks are attacks on people’s characters, not a critique on their ideas or disagreements with their premises or conclusions. There’s been a lot of terrible name-calling on our society lately. This also includes insulting memes of various political figures. We’ve also been accusing one another of being “trolls” or “butt-hurt” when we do not agree. Personal attacks do not lead anywhere productive. It just forces people to shut down or be on the defensive. It breaks down civil dialogue and furthers the divide between all of us.

Questioning of motives: The other destructive marker of partisanship is the questioning of motives. Instead of, again, focusing on ideas, we start attacking people’s motives. A simple disagreement now becomes “you only believe that because you hate so-and-so or you’re trying to do blah-blah.” None of us have access to anyone else’s minds, so when we start assuming we know what they are thinking or why they believe the things they do, we are venturing into wild conjectures. This is incredibly counterproductive, as nothing riles people up more than when their motives—and thus their integrity—are attacked.

In general, name-calling and motive-questioning are terrible and we need to put a stop to them in all dialogues. It’s even worse when it’s put into already volatile political conversations. That’s when it becomes partisan and destructive. But absent of either of these two elements, I don’t think it’s necessarily partisan, but rather just a disagreement, and we need to learn how to have conversations even when we disagree. Here are a few examples:

Example A: “I am not a big fan of [politician].” Is this partisan? I don’t think so. No one is being insulted. No one’s motives are being questioned. This states a simple fact. We tend to get riled up and make assumptions about people, such as this person obviously being a member of a particular political party. Who says they are? They could be independent. I’ve met a few people who are not fans of President Trump who are also not fans of President Obama.

Example B: “All these protests are counterproductive. We need to give this administration a chance.” Is this partisan? I don’t think so, no. You may disagree with this statement. But no one’s character is being attacked, and no one’s motives are questioned.

Example C: “The only people who voted for [politician] are xenophobes, misogynists, and racists.” Is this partisan? Yes. You’re questioning people’s motives, and you’re also calling them some very serious names. This does not help anything. It shuts down conversations. We need to avoid statements like this.

Example D: “It saddens me that [politician] is endorsed by [group].” Is this partisan? No. Again, this states a simple fact, no insults, no questioning of motives.

Example E: “You only say that because liberals care more about trees and animals than people.” Is this partisan? Yes. Even if there is not a personal attack, you’re making assumptions about why someone is saying something, which falls into the area of motivation-questioning.

Example F: “I get it, you’re a delicate snowflake and deserve special considerations.” Is this partisan? If it’s in a political context, yes. It violates the rule about not using insults or character attacks. If it’s not in a political context, it’s still rude and should not be put up with.

Example G: “[Politician]’s XYZ law will break up families and severely hurt communities.” Is this partisan? No. Addressing unfair laws like this is one of the reasons our sector exists.

I can go on with examples. But you get the picture. We need to learn to have civil conversations, including strong disagreements, without it becoming a political throw-down. I am proposing a simple rule: If a statement contains no personal attacks and no questioning of anyone’s motivations, it is not partisan and we need to be able to have a conversation like adults.

And keep in mind that just because you feel insulted does not mean that someone is trying to insult you. If they didn’t attack your character or anyone else’s, call you or others names, or questioned your or others’ motives, but rather said something you disagreed with, learn to engage without resorting to those tactics. There’s been way too many conversations online that escalated and got out of hand, from all political leanings. 

We need to discuss policies as they affect our communities. Calling out unjust laws, beliefs, and practices is one of the duties of our sector. But let’s be collegial, have more patience, and disagree without flinging vitriol. We are not going to see eye-to-eye on many things, and if we can’t discuss those things without strangling one another, our work and community suffer.

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