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Steve Hansen: Are you game for a political debate?

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Posted: Tuesday, July 24, 2018 4:38 pm

When I was a lad, my dad used to take me aboard the Naval hospital ship, USS Haven.

One of the things I remember was a sign that hung over the officers’ dining room door. It read, “Never Discuss Politics or Religion in This Wardroom.”

As a kid, I really didn’t understand the significance of that directive. Of course, later in life it became abundantly clear. For some reason, these two subjects often trigger uncontrollable emotions in people. The big question is “why?”

As a psychotherapist, I pondered this issue for a number of years. I suppose there is more than one answer. But here are some thoughts I developed on the subject:

Just about everyone is anchored in some sort of established belief system. The purpose is to provide meaning to this mysterious journey we call life. We often form the basis of our reality from one or both of these two previously mentioned areas. Once we establish our mental framework, a simultaneous need emerges to defend it.

People want their ideas and beliefs reinforced. They tend to befriend those with similar views. When enough people agree, secondary defenses can be created. These are known in psychology as “impermeable constructs.” It simply means the doors to alternative ways of thinking are closed. Any information from those who see things differently may be seen as a threat.

Threats trigger emotions. When this happens, logic and rational thinking often go out the window. The results can be fear and anger. These feelings can evolve into actions by hating and sometimes attacking those identified as the root of perceived hostility.

Needless to say, the Navy did not want its overall mission thwarted by officers, who were angry at each other over ideology and theology — hence, the wardroom sign.

Studies have shown that when people try to change the minds of those with impermeable constructs, a strange thing happens. There is no change. Instead, those who hold concrete beliefs actually have them reinforced to a greater degree. Interestingly, these folks seem to take pride in the fact that they have prevented any new information from piercing their established mental barriers.

This is why cable TV today is full of political arguments on the left and right. But notice that no one ever changes his or her mind. Wouldn’t it be interesting if someone on one of these programs said: “Oh yes, I see your point. I have a new way of thinking about the issue now.” Sorry folks. That simply isn’t going to happen!

So what are the solutions? One is simply to obey the USS Haven wardroom sign.

But what if someone wants to provoke you into a “discussion,” and you choose to take the bait? What are the options?

Confrontation is always a choice. It may make people feel better that they “stood their ground,” but probably won’t change anyone’s mind. The most effective form of confrontation is to question others for clarification of their frozen positions.

Another is avoidance of conflict using a statement such as: “Have you already decided that your understanding is the only correct interpretation? If so, is there any reason to continue this conversation?”

Another approach is to not express things from your point-of-view but from theirs. As an example, let’s say the other person comments with an emotional uproar that, “The president is crazy!”

An alternative to a conventional response might be something such as: “I’m interested in your thoughts about this. Tell me more.”

The answer may sound paradoxical, but if there is any hope of breaking thorough impermeable constructs, it is done by softening defenses and luring that person into reviewing what they believe to be true. Do that by showing interest in their viewpoints.

Still another is ironic humor: “Yep, I love the president’s rallies. They really are ‘crazy!’”

These are just some of the games we all play in life. So here’s a thought to consider: Should we follow the sensible sign once found in the USS Haven or should we choose various alternatives, which may lead to divisive ends? Play or not play: It’s really an individual decision for each person to consider.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.