New Rules of Engagement


Some people become teachers because they love kids. Some become teachers because they love their subject. Me? I became a teacher because “an educated populace is essential to a well-functioning democracy.” Don’t laugh–or, go ahead and laugh if you want to–but that’s a quotation (as closely as I remember it) from my teacher education program application, and it was written with all the idealism, sincerity, and earnestness that characterized my 23-year-old self. (I’m a bit more cynical now, but I’m still pretty sincere and more earnest than your average bear.)

I became an English teacher, in particular, because I felt that knowledge of language was more important than knowledge of anything else. Strong literacy skills allow anyone to learn about anything and to avoid being manipulated by those who know how to twist language and make fallacious arguments. And yet, in recent years, I’ve removed myself from the kind of conversations my younger self felt were so important.

I stopped engaging because it’s gotten so ugly, filled with name-calling and gross, broad, unfair characterizations by those on both sides of our political divide. I stopped engaging because conversations in which everyone is shouting and no one is listening felt pointless.


Pretty much something in here to offend everybody.

I think I was wrong. I trusted so fully in the strength of our political system that I thought it didn’t need me or my voice to carry on in pretty much the same way that it’s always carried on.

But look at where we are. I mean it:  Really look.

When Donald Trump clearly dominated the Super Tuesday primaries, just days after not repudiating validation from David Duke and claiming ignorance of who he is and what he represents (most likely falsely), I decided that I can no longer sit on the sidelines. I need to understand what is happening and to do what I can to counter it.

My concern is not just all of Trump’s reprehensible beliefs, so many of which are counter to values that have been the bedrock of our nation. It is that we might elect such a man as our president when we also have an incomplete Supreme Court likely to be deadlocked on key upcoming cases and a congressional process controlled by those who have vowed not to fill its empty seat by even considering a nominee, in spite of the fact that our Constitution gives the President the right to nominate Supreme Court justices (and there is precedent for doing so in the last year of a term, most recently by Ronald Reagan). Our system depends upon its checks and balances (thank you for teaching me that, Mr. Czubin). What happens if we elect a person who disregards the Constitution and we have a deadlocked and incomplete Supreme Court and a Congress that cannot work together or with members who refuse to do so in order to further their own political agenda?

To think that we are immune from the kinds of catastrophe that have brought down other nations is arrogant and ignorant. Our only hope, I have come to believe, is for all of us to re-engage in the kind of political dialogue that will help us move forward to find our common beliefs and solutions to our challenges that will not violate our common values.

For me, that means getting uncomfortable. It means engaging in conversations about politics, especially with those who do not share my opinions, even though I might feel unfairly judged and misunderstood. As I’ve started to do so in the past week, I’ve been formulating my new rules for engagement:

1. Look for the common ground and acknowledge it. We need to let each other know where we find agreement–otherwise we might not see that we have any.

2. Be open to changing my mind. I’ve got some pretty strongly held opinions, and I’m not likely to budge when it comes to my values. However, I think we too often equate certain solutions or positions with particular value systems, and we close our minds or jump to conclusions based on that. When someone I know linked to an article about progressives driving income inequality, my first instinct was assume he didn’t care about income inequality. I was wrong.

3. Ask questions to seek/confirm understanding before judging/refuting. This requires listening/reading carefully. In a recent conversation someone referred to “folks in the establishment” and I realized I wasn’t sure of who he meant. So I asked. Glad I did.

4. Ground discussions in facts provided by reputable sources. Sometimes the question I ask is, “How do you know?” I ask it not to challenge, but because I truly want to know where the information is coming from. If I’m going to refute someone else’s “facts,” I make sure I’m correct and provide verification from as credible a source as I can find.

5. Use neutral, non-judgmental, non-inflammatory language. This one requires me to stop and re-read and examine my language before I click “post” on social media.

6. Respectfully point out bias and fallacies in logic. We need to help each other see logic that isn’t valid or tactics of argument that divert us from the issue being discussed, and I can’t emphasize “respectfully” enough. I tried to do this recently and caused offense. If we alienate others by insulting or sounding like a know-it-all, we’re defeating the purpose of engaging. (And thank you, Mrs. McConnaughey, for your course on “Semantics and Logic,” which is where I learned to recognize both logical fallacies and loaded language.)

7. Assume positive intent. I’m writing here about engaging in conversation with those we know. Trolls have no positive intent, but I bet most people you know are not trolls–even that guy from high school who posts the memes you hate. When we look for the positive intent, it’s easier to stay engaged.

As I’ve been dipping my toes back into the pool of political conversation, using these rules, I’ve found that what we like to say really is true:  Our commonalities are bigger than our differences. I’ve come to understand some things about why some support Trump, which doesn’t lessen my fear of him, but it does lessen my fear of his supporters and lessens my bewilderment. My re-engagement hasn’t been comfortable, but I’m glad I’ve done it and will continue to do so.

I believe that many of us have disengaged because we feel powerless. We feel like very small cogs in a system we can’t game. Most of us are small, and the odds really aren’t in our favor. Still, this world hasn’t yet entirely killed that young idealist who still lives within me, and I think we all need to try and we need to exercise what power we have:

We need to talk to each other. We need to inform ourselves. We need to vote. 

My generation has never really experienced threats that required the kinds of sacrifices our grandparents had to make. I hope to whatever you believe in that we aren’t now. Let’s all do whatever we can to ensure that we won’t be. No one ever said democracy was easy. Might be time for all of us to get uncomfortable and do the hard work it requires.

If you agree, please share this post in whatever way you like to share. (Sharing buttons in the sidebar.) Let’s start a movement. #letsengage


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11 thoughts on “New Rules of Engagement

    • Rita says:

      I think Canadians have every right to say all kinds of things about the election going on here–because the US is right over your border and because we have the influence we do have in the world. Probably my favorite thing Canadians have said so far is this:

      • Marian says:

        🙂 I debated including that video in my initial comment. You’re absolutely right — we are affected by what happens in US politics (as is the rest of the world). But because we don’t actually have a say, I think those discussions can easily be perceived as interference. To say that we’re collectively baffled/horrified by what’s happening with the Republican party would be an understatement, but I feel that outsiders chiming in (especially when the outsiders are deemed to be “socialists” 😉 ) simply doesn’t help the situation.

  1. Sarah says:

    Hmm, those rules of engagement strike me as useful for non-political conversations, as well.

    And I think it’s interesting that this question of language and discourse and how it has gone wrong in politics is so closely tied to your aspirations as an English teacher. I’m glad you’re bringing those ideas to this new space and applying them to a different kind of conversation.

    I have to admit that I so thoroughly live in a bubble — both IRL and on social media — that I don’t witness or have much opportunity to take part in discussions across the political divide. The debates I see on my Facebook page are more along the lines of “How wrong was Bernie’s ‘Republicans are crazy’ joke?” and “Should we really be mocking the Anglicization of Donald Trump’s last name?” I kinda suspect that’s not the kind of debates you’re talking about though…
    Sarah recently posted…My home this season: February 2016My Profile

    • Rita says:

      Yeah, I think if I followed these rules in all contentious conversations I’d probably get a lot further. It’s interesting to me–most of the views I see that are different from mine come from those I knew when I was young. Makes sense; you get quite a cross section of folks in a public school, and as we get older we tend to stick to those who are like us. I think because I knew them when I was young, I also care about them in a way I might not some of those I’ve come to know as an adult. Maybe that’s part of why I’m willing to do the work of engaging through discomfort? That and Trump scares the poop outta me.

  2. Gretchen says:

    I have to admit, a big part of me misses living somewhere where mostly people just agreed with me about politics, aside from the occasional primaries quarrel. When I try to talk politics with my family, it always ends incredibly poorly, no matter how good my intentions are. The last time I tried it with my mother, I ended up e-mailing her a video about Sarah Palin shooting wolf puppies in the head. It’s not something I’m proud of ;). I’ve been surprised at how much common ground there is to be found, though, with friends who I’ve always assumed I have nothing in common with, politically speaking.

    • Rita says:

      I think it would be hard for me to live somewhere I felt in the minority; that’s not the case. But, I think that can keep me from really understanding those who don’t agree with me, and it can keep me out of touch with how others are feeling. I like that social media makes up for that a bit.

      Oh, and that Sarah Palin video thing? That kind of thing is why I like you. 🙂 I never talk politics with my grandma. I love her dearly, but our views are miles apart. She doesn’t bring it up with me, either. Occasionally our conversation skirts close to it, but we always steer it back to safer territory. Although I’m feeling pretty committed to engaging with others, I’m not going to with her. We agree to disagree.

  3. Kate says:

    I wish our politicians and pundits would use your rules of engagement because I see less of a desire to solve problems and find solutions than a desire to wield power – at least on the part of our “representatives”.

    I’m not very patient with political discussions lately. I used to like them and find them interesting, but more and more and I find them exhausting. Both sides of the aisle go around and around pointing fingers and volleying for points instead of addressing issues. The Flint water crisis is a perfect example of a problem that has so many causes, needs a solution, and is being used as a soapbox to affix blame to one party or another. It makes me crazy when an issue that is so obviously NOT partisan becomes a party talking point while THE PEOPLE of Flint still deal with lead in their water.

    I think part of my frustration stems from the fact I’m a bit of a centrist in an age where it doesn’t seem as if there is room for me. I look at our field of Presidential candidates and the ones who are succeeding are so far from the middle, I don’t have a shot at getting a President who reflects my political views and at this point, I just want someone who doesn’t terrify me. And that strikes me as really, really, sad.
    Kate recently posted…The Little ThingsMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I think I’m much like you. I was so interested in politics when I was younger, and for quite a while now I’ve just not been. What’s happened since 2000, really, has been so discouraging to me. As you said, everything is now partisan, and that makes me sad, too. I don’t remember it being that way when I was younger. I’m not a centrist in philosophy, but I’m a centrist in practice. I guess I’m pragmatic; I know things are going to work better when most of us feel OK about what we’re doing. That means no one gets their whole way. I do think Clinton is the most moderate of the candidates, but she’s been so demonized I know she would be a polarizing force. It all feels lose-lose right now–but some losses would be much greater than others.

  4. Laura says:

    There seems to be a disconnect between what I’m seeing in the national media and the online community and my personal experience, and I wonder if that is the same for others. What I see in the media frightens me, and seems constantly to lead back to some version of “us vs. them.” However, in my personal life, I don’t know many of these people, really. I myself am fairly liberal but with a few libertarian kinks here and there. I have a friend who is Republican, but also an environmentalist because of his faith perspective. I have a friend who is pretty firmly Marxist, but not a radical in any sense of the word. I have a friend who is a minister who is progressive on many social issues, but deeply disappointed in the lack of Christian values in both political parties. None of them are the stereotype that might be thrust upon them, and none of them are hateful, rude, disrespectful, or angry people though they come from vastly different perspectives. They are all deeply frustrated by our political situation, regardless of party or issue, and so wish we could get back to a semblance of sanity. So I wonder if it’s something about that transition from the people we know to the people we don’t that we lose the ability to respectfully disagree or struggle through to a solution? Is it that there’s too many people in the “room” when we begin to shout and not care about the dignity of the process of democracy? I don’t know exactly what I’m struggling to say here, but….how can we get back to recognizing each other as “fellow Americans” instead of “that person who doesn’t think/look/believe the way I do?”
    Laura recently posted…Getting to a Fresh Start in the Dining RoomMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I guess your last sentence is what this post is about for me. Some of those Americans I see in the media or online feel so foreign to me. If they are as they are portrayed (or portray themselves), they are. When some of those I know began sharing things that expressed views that are so disturbing to me, I felt I couldn’t be quiet. (That whole “voice” thing I’ve got going on this year.) As I’ve tried to engage in real conversation, I’ve realized the truth of another one of your sentences: Everyone is deeply frustrated by our political situation.

      I think there are some important things that have gotten us here that aren’t based in how much we know each other. I can’t change any of those things. The only thing I can change is myself. I’m under no illusion that the conversations I personally have are going to do much to affect the outcome of our elections. But I’d like to think that if we could all stop getting sucked into the crap that passes for broadcast journalism and talk to each other as if we are reasonable, complex people who don’t fit into one of only two demographic profiles, that might be a good start.

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