Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Understanding or Winning?

You've had that student in class. You're going over the answers to some simple quiz, and the hand goes up, and you hear something like, "But what could have happened is that Della actually hit her head and had temporary amnesia, so she didn't know that she was a girl and she got her hair cut short because she thought she was a man and she actually bought the watch strap for herself because she thought she had a watch of her own and she wasn't even thinking of Jim at all because she didn't even remember him..."

This is not the student who is confused. This is not the student who is trying to be funny. This is not the student who has trouble understanding. This is the student for whom understanding is not the goal.

Instead, this student wants to win. This student, either from boredom or combativeness or just-doesn't-like-you-ness, wants to come up with a way to look at things that makes them right.

I will confess-- this student can make me a little bit nuts. I have patience with many things, but my supply is extremely limited for people who deliberately, purposefully work to NOT understand something.

This is why I often lose patience with political arguing and spinning, which absolutely feeds on valuing winning over understanding. Somebody makes a statement, issues a release, writes a piece, takes an interview, and people from the Other Side don't sit down and say, "What are they trying to say here?" Instead they say, "What meaning, spin, interpretation can we put on this to make this guy look wrong?"

The Obama "You didn't build that" line was a classic example (so classic it has its own wikipedia page). Everyone knew exactly what he meant and it was, in fact, a sentiment that plenty of conservatives have expressed-- you get the benefits of operating in an orderly and rules-based society and therefor you owe the social fabric something. But opponents of the President saw an opportunity to spin his words, to deliberately and purposefully misunderstand them, and so they took it.

Particularly in the world of politics, we see understanding and winning as mutually exclusive. In the most heated debates, we find an absolutely intractable refusal to admit that anything the other side is saying makes any kind of sense at all. Some opponents of Trump have been adamant that they will not try to empathize, not try to hear, not try to understand where Trump's people are thinking, as if that will somehow keep them from getting one more drop of success or victory.

But understanding is not about yielding or losing or giving up ground. It's true that I view understanding as something that is valuable in and of itself-- for me, understanding is always best. But if you want to talk tactical issues, then let me offer this.

You cannot defeat what you don't understand.

Sure, you can win occasional holding actions with brute force, like "treating" cancer by cutting off the affected body parts. And yes-- when someone is coming at you with a hatchet, understanding may need to wait until you have knocked them down and taken their hatchet away.

But without understanding, there is no real victory.

The most classic mistake that people make in heated debate is to believe that their opponents are some combination of evil and stupid. Proponents of Common Core went down to defeat exactly this way-- they believed (or acted as if they believed) that opponents of Common Core were either ignorant peasants who just didn't understand or else tools of the evil unions up to no good. Yes, there were reformsters who kept trying to tell their allies differently, but by the time the message that good and reasonable people had rational and comprehensible reasons for opposing Common Core, it was too late. Now while the name may be spoken in some dark corners in hushed tones, and some shadowy remnant of the Core still stalks the land, the grand dreams and plans for one nation, under common standards measured by a common test-- that dream is toast. CCSS boosters refused to understand, and it has cost them.

When you don't understand your opponents-- when you don't understand their goals, their fears, their motivations, their basic ideas about how the world works-- you will fail to predict their next move, and you will fail to see how you can change their direction. Think of the sixty gazillion articles in the template of "Now that Trump has said this thing and we have published it, his campaign will be trashed."

Empathy and understanding make us better people, and they don't cost us a thing. Yes, sometimes when we understand others, we may realize that we share some goals or ideas or beliefs. But understanding someone doesn't mean we have to give an inch in whatever fight we're engaged in. Understanding who someone is and why they are pursuing particular goals doesn't necessarily make those goals one tiny bit less wrong.

In the heat of political battle, it's easy to think that understanding and empathy will interfere with victory, but I don't see how you achieve victory without them.


  1. I wish the DNC and Hillary's supporters would understand this. There are reasons that people didn't come out in droves to support the anointed one. We've tried to explain, but we get "Bernie Bro" or "Trump lover" thrown in our faces (along with a host of other lovely sentiments). These are not exactly ways to bring dissenters back into the fold and if the Democrats keep it up, they can get used to President Trump (and his ilk) for a good long time.

  2. This concept of "understanding" is truly lost in the current political and social dialogue. But being able to comprehend the beliefs and motivations of others is really the only way to deal with these decisive issues. We need to learn how to have a dialogue. As teachers we need to teach our student how to listen to the other side.