It happened again this week — that thing that feels like I’ve just walked out of the theater with a friend, we start to discuss what happened in the movie, and it’s like we were watching two different films.
Has this happened to you?
On Tuesday night, I stayed up to watch the presidential debate. As I watched, I came to conclusions about the two candidates and what I perceived to be happening.
The next day, as I scrolled through social media, it appeared that some of my Facebook friends had watched an entirely different debate. The conclusions they came to didn’t match the ones I came to.
How can we be all participants in the same story and interpret it in such different ways?
We talk about this in literature. When we read a text, we always have to consider 1) the actual text — the words on the paper, 2) what the author intended, and 3) the experiences that the reader brings to the text.
In this case, the actual text — the first 2020 Biden/Trump debate — was pretty hard to track. If you watched it live, you might have had a hard time hearing questions and answers because of all the interruptions. You might have honed in on a few words of one participant and either applauded or vilified that candidate. During the actual broadcast, because the participants talked over one another, it would’ve been difficult to weigh each comment and determine if it was an answer to the question, an intentional or unintentional disruption, or a failure to answer the question fully and completely.
Making sense of what happened in the debate isn’t much easier when you read an official transcript, because words in print don’t carry tone, they don’t convey timing, they don’t show facial expressions or eye contact. It would again be easy to isolate one quote from this transcript and hold it up as evidence of a win or a loss, of civility or disrespect.
Weighing and judging each speaker’s intent is also difficult. We can’t peer inside the hearts and minds of Donald Trump or Joe Biden to see whether they actually were trying to discredit their opponent, to avoid answering questions, or to genuinely answer questions. We have clues — word choice, tone, and body language — and we come to our own conclusions about those clues based on the lens we are looking through.
That lens is shaped by our own experience. Someone who votes Republican may see Donald Trump’s performance as strong — Trump didn’t let Biden fully answer many questions at all; he called out Biden’s track record; and he questioned his integrity. A person who votes Democrat might see Biden’s performance as strong — he spoke to the camera, answered the questions, and provided details, although few, about his plans. An expert debater would likely find fault with Trump — he didn’t follow the agreed upon rules, he didn’t wait his turn, he didn’t fully respond to questions, he interrupted his opponent and the moderator. However, the same expert might not have high praise for Biden either — Biden sometimes stumbled over words, had to search for a name, and responded to Trump’s jabs in frustration. Anyone who’s ever been bullied, was likely triggered by Trump’s assault on Biden’s son Hunter, his reference to Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas, and his continuous interrupting (over 70 times throughout the debate). However, folks who were hoping that someone might take the high road, would have also been disappointed with Biden telling Trump to “shut up” and referring to him as a clown. Certainly many were horrified by Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacy, but I think some (and not just white supremacists) might have found him strong in that moment — giving his answer boldly and without apology.
Because our country (even more so our world) is made up of people from so many different backgrounds, with myriad life experiences, it makes sense that people would walk away from the debate with varying opinions about what just happened, just like people have varying opinions about American politics in general and specific policies regarding health care, education, law enforcement, or the pandemic. This is America — where we value the freedom to have an opinion and to speak our minds, where we work hard to secure our right to disagree.
In the literature classroom, when I teach literary analysis, in addition to discussing the three texts as above, we ask the question, what is the author doing here? How or why is he or she doing it? Because my students see each piece through their own lens, we don’t have to all come to the same conclusion, but we do have to support our opinion with evidence from the text. I tell my students, “You don’t have to agree with me, but you have to make me believe in the validity of your opinion — you have to make your case.” Maybe Harper Lee is exposing the racism of the South, maybe she’s promoting a system that would put an innocent black man in jail — you can make either point if you back it up with evidence.
What I’ve seen too often lately is a failure to make a case. I see too many people saying what they believe in general terms — “My candidate is the best, yours is the worst!” “My candidate clearly won the debate; yours lost!” — without building a substantial argument based on evidence. I hear sound bytes — “He’ll make America great again!” or “He’ll build back better!” but I don’t see the depth and detail of support that I would require in a high school essay.
More often, I see a devolving into name-calling — “Those left-wing liberals!” or “Those Trumpsters!” — where even long-time friends get down in the mud to fight dirty.
And what does that get us? Dirty clothes, scratched faces, bruised egos, and broken relationships.
I wonder what would happen if we took a different approach. Could we do better than those who spent 90 minutes sparring on stage the other night? Could we step away from our social medial accounts, call each other on the phone, and try a different way?
Could we greet one another? Hi, friend that I usually only interact with on social media? What does your life look like these days? What is important to you? How is your family?
Could we raise questions? How do you feel about health care? Why do you feel that way? What data supports that opinion? How do you imagine we could improve the safety of our communities? Have you seen any research on that? What might we have to sacrifice for that cause?
Could we listen? That’s interesting. I never considered that stance before. Your statistics are convicting. That seems reasonable.
Could we push back respectfully? I can see what you mean about the failures of the Affordable Care Act, how would your suggestions play out in the long-run? I understand your reasons for wanting to ensure Second Amendment rights, how could we keep them while also decreasing incidences of gun violence?
Could we be open to change? How could you and I work together on this? Who else might find these ideas interesting? How can we make our ideas known to governmental leaders?How can we get involved?
Am I too idealistic? Perhaps.
But here’s what I know — it’s very easy to sit on my couch at home slinging one-liners on social media. I can put you in a box pretty quickly, label you according to what I interpret your posts to mean, and dismiss you as being out of your mind. Such behavior keeps me in my lane and keeps you in yours. We continue going our own way, convinced that we are right and the other is wrong. And it’s an angry, lonely existence.
We can do better. We are all capable of examining a text — a debate, a news show, an article, a press conference. We are all able to consider the author’s intent, and to interrogate the lenses through which we view the world. We are all able to research complex issues — educational disparity, income tax law, military funding — and to find evidence that will help us develop an informed opinion. We are all able to pick up a phone and engage in a two-way conversation with other humans. We are able to consider other points of view, to compare them with our own, and to think critically about which views hold the most merit.
Folks, we’ve got to begin doing this hard work. Too much is at stake for us to continue to voice our opinions only on social media. If we really care about the issues we are spouting off about, we need to take action.
Many are right now calling us to vote, and that is of critical importance. And, before we vote — before we check those boxes — let’s spend a little time asking questions, searching for answers, having conversations, and thinking critically.
Let’s not blindly follow a party because we always have or because others say we should. Let’s not be careless with the freedoms and the privileges we’ve been given; let’s do our part to secure them for those who will come behind us.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.James 1:5