Once in a while, my parents would break the cardinal rule to not talk politics over dinner. One night before a Conservative friend came over, they warned me that though he and mommy might seem like they were fighting, they were really just "discussing." It was hard for 10-year-old me to understand why loudly disagreeing about unions and taxpayer dollars was productive, but that night was peppered with laughter and sealed with kisses.
Since then, the political "discussions" I've been in or around have lacked the same joie de vivre. They are more about proving the other side wrong than having an actual exchange. That toxic dynamic makes political change impossible -- something Russell Brand seems to want more than a new TV show.
If we thank Brand for anything, it should be for giving political rebellion a fresh face (sorry Guy Fawkes, you've had plenty of centuries in the spotlight). In his viral BBC Newsnight interview, Brand said passionately what I already believe: our political systems are destroying the planet and exploiting the poor. Unfortunately, his plan to change the world is that he won't vote until a revolution he hasn't thought out overthrows the status quo. Right then.
Waiting on the sidelines is akin to a little boy who sulks in the corner when a game of tag doesn't go his way. In fact, many change-the-world types prefer to abandon rather than engage with a system they abhor. Just look to the "off-the-grid" movement, which is growing by 10 to 15 per cent a year.
When I asked a Facebook friend why she recently moved from Montreal to a small town in Nova Scotia to live sustainably, her response was: "I am completely disgusted with humanity. Seriously disgusted. I do not feel any hope for us. I just am trying my hardest to not perpetuate anymore (sic) violence in meeting the needs of myself ..."
While passion is essential for political change, these radicals would gain a larger audience if they traded aggression for dialogue. And it's not just the radicals. Most people have become so emphatic about their beliefs they can't even sit down to speak with the other side. What we need is a conversation, not a revolution.
British sociologist Michael Mann defines a cohesive society as one with the ability to tolerate dissonant values. By his rationale, we're not doing so hot.
According to the Pew Research Center, people's politics divide them more than race, gender, age and income. Republicans and Democrats have become incapable of feeling empathy for one another. This isn't just a "crazy Americans" problem, either.
Canadian politics are divisive as well. Take the war between Toronto's downtown and its suburbs that keeps Ford Nation thriving. In Quebec, the PQ's Charter of Values has divided a province, pit anglophones against francophones and La Belle Province against the rest of Canada. Author and journalist Michael Valpy called 2012 "the year of The Cleavage" in Canada. He wrote: "There is no longer simply one or two Canadas -- say, the old two Canadas of French and English ... There are three, four and five Canadas yelling at each other, contemptuous of each other's values and world-views."
So often, political conversations turn out like this one, where Hannah from the HBO series Girls "talks" to her conservative boyfriend:
"We're having an open conversation about things we believe in and I'm also a little horrified by the fact that you think people should just be allowed to own guns."
"It's way more complicated than that."
"Is it though, more complicated than that?"
The problem is we don't want to understand other people's beliefs -- we want to prove them wrong. It's a style most of our politicians are familiar with.
Canada's parties love to slam one another for playing regional favourites (Trudeau loves Quebec na-na na-na boo-boo) and salivate when the other parties screw up (see our country's favourite soap opera du jour, the Senate scandal). In his speech to the Conservative convention Friday, Harper said he "couldn't care less" what his opponents have to say. While being "right" on a national stage is part of the game, adult conversation is one of the most important tools a politician has to get things done.
Ronald Reagan used good ol' compromise to overhaul the U.S. tax system in 1986: Democrats agreed to lower the top tax rate and Republicans agreed to eliminate $30 billion in annual tax deductions. When politicians refuse to accommodate other values we get government shutdowns and extreme policy.
In the New York Times, psychologist Daniel Goleman writes that, "readily dismissing inconvenient people can easily extend to dismissing inconvenient truths about them." Maybe Republicans wouldn't insist on cutting food stamps or stopping ObamaCare if they had more exposure to low-income people. Goleman argues we won't end inequality until we address "the inability to see oneself in a less advantaged person's shoes." The same level of engagement should be expected of liberals who dogmatically support gun control without ever talking to gun owners. If you want to change the world, talk to thine enemy.
One of my favourite anecdotes from Occupy Wall Street comes from a stroll Toronto wealth adviser Greg Newman took past Zucotti Park. A man in his 20s shouted at Newman about the one per cent's conspiracy to crush the middle class. Newman was curious and stopped to listen. He asked: "Want to hear what somebody from Bay Street has to say?" After 10 minutes, the activist asked for Newman's business card so they could grab a beer.
Conversation, it turns out, can also be pretty revolutionary.