POLITICON 2017: Attributing Bad Intent

I attended a very interesting event this past weekend called Politicon. I went with my nephew Ben, who some readers will recall from previous installments of this blog. Suffice it to say that Ben runs a partisan website and is very interested in politics.

When Ben told me he was going to Politicon in Pasadena and that I should go with him, I said, “Politicon? What’s that? Like Comic Con for politics?”

It turns out that is exactly what Politicon is. They’re taking the comic book/Star Trek convention model and applying it to politics. Rather than running an old-fashioned style dry, boring political convention, they’ve pitched their convention to the hip young — and non-young — people who are becoming more and more engaged in politics.

CNN was the main sponsor of the event, and The Young Turks, a popular left-wing YouTube show seemed to have a lot of involvement. So, even though the event is supposed to be non-partisan, the lefties have apparently been heavily emphasized during the previous two years that the event has existed. Or “thus have I heard,” as the saying goes. I wasn’t there.

This year it seems like a major shift took place. Attendance jumped by several thousand people, leaving the organizers barely able to cope with the unexpected influx (though I should point out, they handled the situation very well). It appeared to me that a large number of the folks newly attending were, if not precisely right wing, much more to the right than the folks who came in 2015 and 2016.

The person I was most interested in seeing at Politicon was Ben Shapiro. I won’t say I’m exactly a fan of Mr. Shapiro, but I find him interesting. He’s interesting because he can articulate right-wing arguments very clearly. So, when I disagree with a right-wing position, I can usually find a video by Shapiro that explains that position in a way that I can follow and understand. I may still disagree, but at least I know what I’m disagreeing with.

I used to fear listening to people like Shapiro. Was I afraid I’d be converted to the wrong views? Maybe. I don’t know for sure. But, if so, that was an unreasonable fear. I am perfectly able to listen to an opinion that differs from my own and evaluate it on its actual merits. I wonder now what scared me so much.

The one thing Ben Shapiro said this weekend that I thought was the most interesting was that one should never immediately attribute bad intent to a person holding a position one disagrees with.

When you disagree with someone about hot-button political issues such as climate change, abortion, government sponsored health-care, and the like, it is important not to immediately attribute bad intent to the other person’s position.

I used to do this all the time. People who questioned climate change did so because they were either greedy assholes who made money destroying the environment or foolish dupes of those who did. Pro-Lifers were misogynists who just wanted to control women’s bodies and cared nothing for the innocent babies they claimed to be saving. Those who criticized Obamacare did so out of greed when they were rich and didn’t want to pay their fair share, or out of stupidity when they were poor and didn’t want the obvious benefits the Affordable Care Act wanted to provide them. And so on, and on, and on. I’m not making this up. This is how I actually thought of such people. And I’m ashamed of that now.

My positions on these issues have not changed, by the way. But my ideas about those who hold opposing views have changed radically, and for the better.

I’m using leftist examples because that’s been my general leaning most of my life. But everybody does this. You could come up with plenty of examples of right wingers who make the same kinds of snap assumptions about the bad intent of lefties. And it’s just as wrong when they do it.

I’m not saying that people never have bad intent. Sometimes they do. But to immediately leap to the conclusion that those who disagree with you do so because they’re bad people is silly. It’s lazy too.

And, from a Buddhist standpoint, it’s one of the many things we do to ourselves that causes us needless agitation.

When you continuously attribute bad intent to others, you find yourself surrounded by evil. It’s a highly uncomfortable situation. And it’s not real. You only succeed in creating a bad fantasy about your surroundings, which is just as useless as pretending everything’s hunky-dory when maybe it’s not.

If, instead, I notice that I, myself, contain good intent, bad intent and, quite often, no intent at all, I can notice that others also have the same nature as me. I am often ill-informed. I am often mistaken. I am often not nearly as smart as I imagine I am.

By the way, it’s not necessary to attribute good intent to those you disagree with either. There really are nearly irredeemably bad people in the world — probably fewer than most of us imagine, but they exist. There really is a tendency for greed, hate, and delusion to be strong motivators. That’s why the Buddha said to avoid them.

But I have greed, hate, and delusion too. And I try my best not to be overcome by them. So do a lot of people with whom I disagree. Some people give in easily to greed, hate, and delusion. So do I sometimes. Especially the delusion of bad intent in others.

Rather than immediately attributing either bad or good intent to those I disagree with, I’ve found that it’s a better strategy is to listen. The only hope I have of discovering someone’s actual intent is by listening.

Listening is powerful. Sometimes you can change someone’s mind just by listening to what they have to say.

I watched a few debates this weekend between right-wing people and left-wingers. I saw Ann Coulter battle Ana Kasparian. I watched Chelsea Handler take on Tomi Lahren. And I watched Ben Shapiro duke it out with Cenk Uygar. All of these debates were thought-provoking and informative.

Even when the crowds got loud, everyone was civil to each other and no actual fights broke out. I got to hear opinions I agreed with get taken apart by people who opposed them. I got to hear a lot of ideas I would never have come up with on my own. It was fun. There was so much going on that there was no way to attend some of the events I wanted to watch.

There is a huge difference between airing our disagreements face-to-face as opposed to typing out our opinions on increasingly echo-chamber-like social media platforms. It made me glad to see so many people were willing to do so and able to handle it so well.

Some people I was talking to yesterday wondered if Politicon would continue since the folks who sponsored the event didn’t seem to count on how many of the attendees would disagree with them — in other words, since right-wingers like Ben Shapiro drew way bigger crowds than they expected (the two events with Shapiro both had to be moved at the last minute to accommodate all those who wanted to attend).

I hope they’re wrong. I’d like to go again next year.

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