26 January 2015


There's an exercise I've both facilitated and participated in, called 4 corners. You split the room into 4 boxes. In each box, you write (with tape, on the floor, so it's nice and big) SA (strongly agree), A agree), SD (strongly disagree), D (disagree). Then, you read a series of questions to the group. While the question is being read, people move to the box that corresponds to how they feel about those issues.

Years ago, back in 1998, some of those questions would get extreme polarisation. One of those was "People should be allowed to be openly gay in the military." Back in 1998, there were some folk who thought (adamantly!) that it meant that people should be allowed to paint the rifles pink, and sashay around in makeup, until one of the ROTC kids spoke up and said, "Are you NUTS? If you think that's what it means to be gay, you need to check your stereotypes." Last year, when I attended a camp where the exercise was repeated (with the same age group of high school students), literally everyone was in the "strongly agree" box, because our concepts of what it means to be gay have evolved since 1998.

Some questions, however, still got severe polarisation.

"Should the children of people who immigrated to the USA illegally be allowed to go to public schools, regardless of where the children were born?" That one got people scattered all across the room. Some were wanting to straddle a line. The rules of the exercise is that it's not an option. There was a lot of really conflicting opinions, even from people who were in the strongly agree or strongly disagree boxes. People didn't always agree with each other.

Meanwhile, there was a large swathe of people who looked really torn, and didn't want to choose one side or the other, because their opinions weren't so cut and dry as the four choices we'd provided. They were more nuanced than that. There was shading to the black and white picture they'd drawn in their minds.

What does this exercise teach us?

For one thing, the voting process SUCKS. I understand that there isn't much better on a national scale, but frankly, what we're being fed is akin to the four boxes, only we frequently get just two. Both sides tell you, repeatedly, that if you don't make a choice for one of the two choices (neither of which you're completely comfortable with), you're literally worse than Chairman Mao, and you want communist fascist nazi overlords from Cuba to take over your country and enslave you, and how dare you question the validity of being presented two shitty choices that you feel uncomfortable making a stand on? This is the rhetoric coming from both sides.

That's what our voting system is, and it's not even got the strongly agree or strongly disagree. It's got yes or no. Look at ballot measures. They're frequently worded in such a manner as to obfuscate the actual message behind it. When proposition 8 was going down, half the people voting for the thing (in either direction) didn't know what their vote meant.

For another, it teaches us that just because someone voted in a particular way doesn't mean that the person is a monster who wants to kill your rights to _________. People's views are nuanced, and shaded. Unfortunately, the national dialogue about how to run things, how to care for people, and how to move forward with our spending, doesn't give people room to straddle the lines between the four (or two) boxes. You have to make a choice. You aren't given the chance to say "This is what is sort of in the neighbourhood of what I'm thinking, but I am not sure I understand all the ramifications of it," or "I can't say as I'd lean strongly in one direction or the other, because I see merits to both sides." The discourse is "You're with me or you're against me."

Bear in mind that the four corners exercise is done in a group of people where there are established guidelines about it being a safe space to voice your opinion, no matter how controversial it is. The fact that you have it is enough for you to express it, as long as you do so in a respectful manner. Ignorance is not a dirty word, but rather an opportunity to educate. If someone will not see your point of view, no matter what, you agree to disagree, and validate the person's willingness to listen. You remind each other that you care for each other as people, and that you respect the other's need to form and keep their own ideals.

With all those safeguards in place, people STILL had trouble making a stand for an issue. Now imagine how much harder it is, when all your friends seem to be leaning strongly in one direction, your family has its own direction, your spouse is saying something else, and there is no guarantee that your right to exist as a human will be validated or respected. In fact, you're getting the exact opposite. Both sides are calling the others a heartless monster, for whatever reason. The way someone leans on an issue often has consequences of his or her friends' opinions of the friendship.

Tell someone who's angry about the drug war that marijuana should remain illegal, and see how long you remain friends. Tell your gay son that you don't want to campaign against that hateful legislation, because your entire church group will turn its back on you, and see how long your son wants to be in your presence. We don't have those safeguards. We don't leave room for subtlety. We don't care about shades.

I think that I needed to commit this to writing, because I need to remind myself that my "opposition" is not made up of heartless monsters. It's made up of humans, who have moments of doubt, or where their views are nuanced. Whether or not they vote the same way I do, I have to remember that they're involved in the same shitty system that I am, and that they need to make the same shitty choices that I do.