Why Both Sides Are Wrong

If his research can be believed, psychologist John Gottman can tell you with about 90% accuracy whether you’re going to stay with your partner or split up. It’s really not that complicated, actually, and his findings match what we’d intuitively expect. Couples that treat each other with contempt don’t have good long-term relationships. Happy couples listen to each other, particularly about those things that one of them feels is important. If you focus on the negatives in your wife, she’s not going to want to stick around, but people who look for the positives make good lifelong mates.

However you want to define white progressives, black progressives, Latino progressives, Democrats or liberals, what happened at Netroots Nation during the appearances there of presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders (and particularly what has happened since) is a classic example of shitty relationship management.

If the progressive movement is a marriage of disparate groups on the left, we better start doing better quickly or we’re headed for a messy divorce.

It isn’t hard to see how this analogy works. The husband comes home from work quite self-aborbed with a speech prepared to tell his wife about his day and his big plans for the future. The wife, also living too much in her own head, cuts him off and tells him that she doesn’t want to hear about all that and it’s vitally important that he talk about what’s bothering her.

The husband feels diminished. He’s unhappy. He not only is frustrated that he can’t say what he was planning to say, but now he’s also on the defensive. Rather than pausing to consider his wife’s sense of urgency, he resists changing the subject. He gets huffy. He tries to go ahead with the conversation he had been planning for all along.

The wife doesn’t appreciate that her husband isn’t listening and takes this for dismissiveness and disrespect. She raises her voice. He raises his voice. Soon they’re throwing hurtful words at each other. The husband storms off, and the wife calls her friends to vent about what a jerk her husband is.

People who act like this don’t stay married, at least not anymore. And they’ll probably fail in their next relationship, too, because they have bad relationship habits. People need to be heard. They need their interests and concerns to be valued by their partner. They deserve someone who will see their glass as half-full rather than someone who will probe for their weaknesses in the hope of winning some petty interpersonal war.

I belabor this analogy because it’s the only way I can think of to get both sides of this debate to stop and reflect on how their own behavior came up short here.

What happened in the ballroom in Arizona is one thing, and we can debate who was more disrespectful or dismissive or who started it or who was justified. What has come after the incident in the ballroom is much worse. What began as groups with legitimate concerns and agendas having a bad misunderstanding has morphed into a mass exercise in showing contempt for each other.

If you want to keep it up with the “they started it!”, “their side is so much worse!” bullshit, then you can stop reading right now. Because this is simple.

People wanted to be heard or they wanted to hear something, and that didn’t happen. And they’re mad. And they want to act like they are the only ones who didn’t get their needs met. And they want to lecture the other side about how “they don’t get it.”

We know how this ends. It doesn’t end with a happy second honeymoon.

So, stop it.

Stop participating in it like you’re going to win something, because everyone involved is guaranteed to lose.

You can lecture people all day long about how the only way to lose the election in 2016 is to alienate enough white people that the Republicans don’t need anyone else. You can create a hashtag to diminish and humiliate Bernie Sanders and his supporters. You can question each other’s savvy and intelligence and tactics and strategy with harsh contemptuous language.

But, you’re wrong. And you lose.

If you want to be right so badly, you’ll ignore what I’m saying. If you can’t get past your own desire to be heard and respected to see that everyone else wants those same things, too, then you’re as bad as the people you’re trashing.

What happened, happened. People don’t like to be interrupted and shouted down. They don’t like to have their agenda hijacked by someone with a different agenda. But sometimes, when you’re not getting heard, and your needs aren’t getting met, you have to interrupt and insist on your agenda. That’s fine, and for #blackslivesmatter, it could be that a sleepy progressive convention in the middle of the summer was a good time to interject and demand recognition. We’ll all recover. We’ll survive. Perhaps we’ll all be better off for it.

But how about some recognition that you hijacked the agenda and interrupted and shouted people down and denied people the ability to have their needs and desires met? They didn’t respond the way you wanted? Well, you own that, because people never respond well in those circumstances. And now you want to heap contempt on their heads on top of it?

No, this is all wrong.

And for the folks on the other side who traveled to Arizona to hear what Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders had to say and to maybe have the chance to engage them in a civil dialogue, maybe you should take that frustration you’re feeling and try to understand what it’s like to live in a country with mass incarceration and unaccountable murderous police. I think that’s a lot more frustrating for the communities most affected than not getting to hear a speech.

The problem isn’t how people reacted in the moment, which was natural, but how they are behaving now.

Stop showing each other contempt. Listen to each other. Act like you love each other and want to work together.

Please.

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