APU Business Everyday Scholar Podcast

Podcast: How to Talk to People Who Do Not Listen

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Artsand
Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D, J.D.Faculty Director, School of Business

Public discourse has become increasingly divisive, making it extremely difficult to have productive conversations about politics, religion, and social issues. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to Business professor and lawyer, Dr. Gary Deel, about the causes of this contentious rhetoric including the role of the news media, social media, political leaders, and more. Learn strategies about how to approach talking to people with differing viewpoints, how to reach people who may believe in conspiracy theories, and how to maintain civility with those you disagree with. 

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and today we’re talking to Dr. Gary Deel, Faculty Director in the School of Business. And our conversation today is about talking to people who do not listen. Welcome, Gary.

Dr. Gary Deel: Thanks for having me, Bjorn. I know this isn’t our first podcast together, but it’s nice to be back.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: For sure. Our last podcast was about the, I believe the narcissism of small differences. Really great podcast. I really enjoyed that podcast. And so my first question is the title of this podcast is talking to people who do not listen. So as a lawyer and as a leader of the APUS Debate Club, what does this mean to you?

Dr. Gary Deel: Sure. Well, again, thanks for having me on and these are interesting topics amidst interesting times. So I think at the risk of taking too big a bite at this, we need to first sort of parse who we’re speaking to. And I think we need to ask ourselves whether the person that we’re speaking to is seeking to listen and learn or seeking to win a battle.

I think one of the questions you have to ask is whether the person listening is listening passively or listening actively. And when I think about listening passively, I often describe that as “waiting to talk.” There’s a difference between actually listening to what’s being said and just waiting to retort, planning your response so that you just can’t wait until the other person finishes their thought so that you can fire the next volley over the no man’s land into battle.

And if you’re passively listening, then you’re not really hearing the points that are being made. And I think that’s part of the problem. Pointing that out to someone who is passively listening isn’t always effective because people are generally resistant to the idea that they’re not open-minded or engaged in a conversation with sincere interest and aims to understand.

They typically tend to reject that idea because it would reflect poorly on their character in the moment. So it’s a more difficult problem than just pointing out, “Okay, you’re not really listening to me.” Oh yeah, I get it. Let me change how I’m approaching this.” But that’s often the problem.

If you encounter someone who’s genuinely actively listening that is seeking to understand the points, that’s when your chances are best of actually getting through, whether or not you change minds should rest on the evidence and what’s being presented and whether it’s persuasive. But if the person is actually listening to what you’re saying and considering the points that you’re making, that’s when the likelihood is highest that at least it will sink in.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love that answer because there’s so much there to parse out honestly. It seems like, and I’m not a lawyer and I’m not terribly litigious in my understanding of the world, but it seems like one of the skillsets that lawyers do acquire is the ability to talk about certain subjects, either from an honest perspective or from a biased perspective, where they’re trying to help their client. And so it seems like they can put on different hats depending on the situation.

And, when I think of the average person, and this is nothing against the average person because I am that person, when they argue, they’re usually coming from the cuff and they’re coming from the heart and they’re coming from things that they really feel that they passionately feel, versus somebody who is skilled say in talking and debating, they can kind of dig deep and play a character. I don’t know if that makes sense.

And then use one’s own emotions because they’re probably only have one perspective potentially against them. And so that leads me to the second question is considering the political environment today in the US, why do people not listen to each other politically? And how did the major media outlets make this worse? And this comes right after what I just talked about. People usually talk emotionally about things. And this lends perfectly into politics where for many, politics are people’s new religion.

Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. I mean, you just made a ton of different great points that we could spend our hour talking just about that sequence there, but it’s the narrative. It’s the narrative of the reality that is presented.

So there’s a certain objective reality, but that doesn’t exist in the eyes of any real individual. The fact of the matter is we all see things through a certain lens that is based on our own experience and perspectives. But you’re absolutely right. Depending on the individual and their perspective and their training and their talents. Again, when we look at attorneys for different types of litigation in different cases.

I spent the morning watching parts of the Derek Chauvin criminal trial for the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And there was a lot of discussion on the news networks about the testimony of one particular expert witness, who was a pulmonologist, a pulmonology expert talking about the cause of death and the likely cause of death and what resulted from the behaviors of, and the choices, in terms of the actions of the police on scene at the time that the incident occurred.

And they were talking about how devastating this expert witness’ testimony would be to the case for the defense. That it doesn’t help Derek Chauvin at all because this individual presented as someone that, they described how, first of all, he’s a, I don’t want to say elderly, but he’s a senior member of the medical community. You can tell he’s probably in his 60s. So he’s been beating on his craft for many, many decades. So he has that sort of perceived credibility.

He also spoke very articulately and calmly without a lot of emotion. And he used very simple examples and analogies and demonstrations that allowed the jury to see when he’s describing what it’s like to cut off the flow of air to the brain through pressure applied to the neck. And he was inviting the jury at one point to apply pressure to their own neck in a way that would simulate that feeling so much so that the defense actually objected to simply state that the jury does not have to follow his instructions. And you could kind of feel that tension in the room.

Again, I want to point out, I don’t have any reason to believe that this expert is being biased, intentionally biased. It is specifically our duty not to be biased when we’re testifying as experts to be objective with the facts. So I don’t think he was presenting the way he was presenting with the aim of being an advocate to any party or an adversary to any other party, but they were describing on the news networks how the circumstances of his testimony, the choice of words, the narrative that he used and the way that he presented was powerful, was very persuasive. And obviously if that’s your expert, that’s great. And if it’s not your expert as a litigator, as an attorney, it’s terrible.

So, to your point about the narrative, it’s the choice of words that are used. This actually reminds me of a movie that I saw recently with Josh Gad and the late Chadwick Boseman, it’s called “Marshall.” And it’s about the early career of justice, Thurgood Marshall as a criminal defense lawyer in the South at a time when there was sort of obviously racial undertones and prejudices that prevented him from litigating a particular case in court in the South. It was a, as I recall, I think a rape case against the Black man accused. And because he wasn’t allowed to speak before the court, he had to rely on Josh Gad, who was a newer, not a great criminal defense attorney — he did other stuff.

There’s a scene where he’s teaching Josh how to present closing arguments. And basically, it’s just reciting the facts. And again, the standard of proof in a criminal trial is beyond a reasonable doubt, evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime was committed as the prosecutor lays it out to be. If the jury finds that there’s proof beyond a reasonable doubt, they should convict. If not, they should acquit. So it’s a high standard.

And obviously, Thurgood Marshall knew that. And so Chadwick Boseman’s characters portraying this and he’s laying out what to say. And he’s saying, “As you’re speaking to the jury, you describe here’s a situation with a circumstance. You have this report that doesn’t make sense, there’s doubt. You have this testimony from this other witness, there’s doubt.”

But as he’s describing it, he’s also taking a fountain pen and he’s dripping ink into a clear glass cup of water. And so what it’s doing as it drips into the water is it’s sort of diluting and creating this cloudy black smoky liquid. And with each time he says, doubt, he takes another drop of ink and drops it in the water. And so it’s this incredibly powerful visual as you’re listening to the story that captivates the audience in this case, the jury, and goes right along with the narrative that you’re trying to paint that this clouds the clarity as to whether or not the crime was in fact committed, and if it was committed by the accused. So again, it’s just sort of in my view, a perfect example of what you’re describing, which is how words and behaviors and the narrative that’s being portrayed can alter the reality that a person sees.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That is a wonderful visual to watch that movie.

Dr. Gary Deel: It’s a great one.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, obviously, especially because Chadwick Boseman, unfortunately, died with such a promising career ahead of him. And also the fact that Josh Gad is in that who is mainly known as a comedian, and Olaf.

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, I mean, there were some comedic moments, but it’s a wonderful movie. And of course, to your point, yeah, Boseman has been amazing in everything he’s ever done from “Jackie Robinson” to obviously “Black Panther.” But this was one I didn’t really, I hadn’t heard much about and I found it on one of the streaming services. But a really great watch if you haven’t seen it yet.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, and I really liked the idea of dropping ink into, I guess, you could say pristine water in which it starts diluting and it becomes cloudy and cloudier until that clean water is now murky. And so that really makes me think about with the question I asked was, considering the political environment today, and this is a follow-up question for this: Do you feel that over the last few decades because of the political environment that people’s trust has become murkier and murkier, which has allowed for more divisiveness, which means that when people talk to each other, they look at the other person as murky and that they don’t want to trust what they’re saying?

And how do we get over that? When, again, we’re talking to people who don’t listen, when we’re all part of the same country and we all have the exact same thing, the vast majority of people want America to succeed. A very small percentage who say, no, America should start over. Or the entrenched problems are so bad, we need to X, Y, and Z. There’s truly very few people like that. And so how do you get people to talk to each other when they view each other as murky?

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, I would agree. I think there’s an erosion of public trust in politics and in your fellow citizen. And I think it’s a product frankly of greed and corruption in government, in positions of power, not just in the public sector, but in private as well and corporate interests, in the fact that people are getting better and better at understanding how to manipulate people.

Every day we engage in psychological research and social sciences research that tells us about trigger points and psycho-emotional triggers that we can use and employ. And again, the words that we use to describe certain situations, the visuals that we provide.

And so, when we speak about news networks, I think there’s a fair amount of blame to be cast. And I’m not even sort of pointing to any one side of the aisle. I think that there’s arguably an extreme amount of it on the right, which has sort of fed the fervor toward the extreme right nationalist movements that we’ve seen, the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th. I mean, we’ve not seen that level recently. There hasn’t been the kind of civil war revolt that was threatened on our government on that day in quite some time. But to a certain extent, every news network is guilty of a little bit of spin depending on their political allegiances and the backings that they have and the beds that they’ve made that they’re prepared to sleep in.

So some are certainly worse than others. That doesn’t mean that every news network is on equal footing. But, yeah, it’s getting to the question of how we fix it. It’s a difficult problem because you start from a place of almost complete mistrust and to the point where what should be non-politicized, non-controversial points of reality are now politicized and controversial.

I saw a meme, I think yesterday or the day before that was talking about how in 1955, I want to say, people were lining up around the country to receive the polio vaccine. Having never really received a vaccine before ever, the first of its kind and not having seen any of the sort of technological advancement and innovation that would come in the next 50 years with satellites and a space program and smartphones.

But today, we sort of take all of that advanced scientific understanding for granted. And we’re arguing about, I think the caption of the meme is there’s a not insignificant portion of our population that thinks that the COVID vaccine is full of secret wizard juice that’s going to control your brain. And Bill Gates is plotting to manipulate everybody with microscopic microchips in the vaccine. It’s just absolutely absurd. We have to get past this.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a prescription. I hate to make this a depressing podcast, but I don’t know that I have a silver bullet for it. I think there are some things that we can do to make the problem better rather than worse.

But it is a really difficult problem when you start from that place because the very reality of our existence is being questioned. I mean, we live in a society with a non-zero group of people who think that the Earth is flat. And to a certain extent that belief amongst a lot of those people may be harmless and sort of benign. But it’s nonetheless just concerning given how far we’ve moved past that. We seem to be revisiting, whether or not we’re even here right now. And it’s a startling situation to be in.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s true. And this actually transitions perfectly to the next question is what should you do when you’re talking to someone who is deep into conspiracy theories? And so I’ll preface that by saying conspiracy theories can vary from crazy outlandish ones to ones that are actually veiled in truths. And then people go in a different way to make them a conspiracy theory.

So typically there are often facts that support the foundation of conspiracy theories, but then they take them in such a weird way that they’re completely outlandish. But there’s enough distrust in the government, there’s enough distress in other people that then people feel that conspiracy theories are the logical way to go and to view the world. And so what do you do when you talk to someone who is deep down that rabbit hole?

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, that’s a really good question as well. And I think it’s important to remember, even if you don’t succeed that your chances of success are highest if you approach the situation from a position of empathy and understanding and kindness rather than attempting to shame someone into conformance. I don’t think that that is necessarily going to get us there.

Now I don’t think that we necessarily need give equal talk time to the most outlandish conspiracy theories in the interest of trying to be fair or kind because the predominant movement of a society is indicative of the norms. And I think that that’s what drives human behavior. So I don’t think that we should have science education television shows dedicated to the flat earth society and that kind of thing.

But, I don’t necessarily admonish or ridicule or chastise. I mean, I do sort of tongue in cheek from time to time, joke about these things for how absurd some of them can be. But on a serious note, if I’m talking to someone who is seriously of the opinion that the earth is flat, telling them that they’re stupid is probably not going to earn any kind of respect that would move that conversation forward.

So if my aim really is to try to bring them onto the side of reality and scientific understanding, then I need to meet them where they are and I need to try to express that in a kind way. I know that it can be difficult, particularly when we’re presented with things that seem so outlandish as to not warrant the time or the energy to have that patience. But I don’t think we do ourselves any favors if we’re not willing to take that time.

At a certain point, there are some conversations and there are some people that will be so deeply rooted in these that, at least for the moment that you’re in, may be incapable of being reached. I mean, and that’s something that we shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge when it occurs.

But I think everybody in some form or another, at one time or another, is at least vulnerable to truth. And so I think the point that we need to drive home is approach them where they are and try to present the evidence in a way that is not so pointed as to suggest that that person is foolish or inconceivably incompetent for even having considered their prior position.

I’m reminded of a book that I have tremendous respect for. It’s one of my all-time favorite reads. It’s Carl Sagan’s, “Demon-Haunted World, Science as a Candle in the Dark.” And in this book, this was sort of written on Sagan’s death bed in the 90s and it was sort of a love letter to science.

But he describes three tenants for critical thinking that I think are all equally important and indispensable and they are:

  • curiosity, so the interest to see the world in different ways,
  • skepticism, the idea that nothing is true because somebody says so and that includes scientific authorities as well. So I would never suggest to someone that you should simply believe the earth is round because the administrator of NASA said so, but that you should look at the evidence and form your own decisions.
  • And then the last piece, the third tenant is humility. And the idea that you should remember that even about those things of which you’re most certain, you could be wrong. It’s possible.

And so if you present that to someone on the other side of the argument that you’re open to their point of view if they’re open to yours then I think you create a reciprocity where you allow for a conversation and exchange of ideas to take place.

And I can say firsthand, I mean, I’ve seen it. It’s rare, which is unfortunate and a little bit discouraging. But I have seen it where if you approach it the right way, it’s possible to reach somebody to the extent that they actually rethink their position.

I think the biggest obstacle to that is the sense of personal ego that hinges on changing one’s mind. There’s a perception that if I change my mind and especially in a public forum, the embarrassment is unbearable.

So I will handcuff myself to a lie or to a scandal or a corrupt politician or what have you and follow them right to the bottom of the ocean because the social shame in admitting that I made a mistake is somehow beyond the scope of anything that I’m willing to tolerate.

And I think we’ve just got to get past that as a society. We’ve got to recognize that it’s okay to be wrong, to be wrong is to be human. We make mistakes. The only shame is in persisting in a bad idea or an idea that you recognize to be incorrect after you have that moment of epiphany. If we can all sort of at least cling to that basic tenant, I think we stand a much greater chance of unifying around truth in the future.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Absolutely wonderful. It’s great that you brought up Carl Sagan because I’m right now studying his Baloney Detection Kit from “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection.”

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, I think that’s chapter one or two in “The Demon-Haunted World” book. Yeah.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, which is absolutely wonderful. And it’s one of those things where if people had critical thinking or that critical thinking literacy, they would have gone through something like this to really analyze ideas. And then they would really try to figure out, okay, what is truth? What has been banned? And then what is just flat out disinformation? And it’s confusing. It is honestly confusing. And I really like what you talked about letting go of the ego and really coming to the table with people in honesty and respect.

And so I really liked how in the last response you talked about ego and it makes me think a lot about what our last podcast was about, which was narcissism and how that self-centered narcissism can get you to not change. And it reminds me of a different article I wrote about genius, really going on Nietzsche and how this is very simple, where he doesn’t really believe per se in genius because it means that it limits people from their full potential.

And so, how do you change someone’s mind? And I really liked how you started saying that you have to, and I’m paraphrasing, I apologize, you have to be kind to them. You have to meet them. You have to try to understand them. And so, when we look at our leaders, why do you think they are some of the worst examples of not doing that?

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, I think we’ve just lost a sense of scrutiny or standard behind the integrity that should undergird every public leader, particularly in the highest positions of power. We can all empathize with certain beliefs, even if we don’t agree with them.

Sagan in his book that we discussed before the break talks about how even if you’re someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife and a life after death, who could not empathize with someone who loses a loved one and wants more than anything to believe that that loved one is still around somewhere, can still hear them, that they can still talk to them, even if it’s in a supernatural sort of ethereal sense.

I mean, who could not empathize and understand that desire, whether or not it be literally true. Who could not understand how someone would want that to be true and at least reach a point of common understanding around that desire, even if we can then debate the literal truth of it.

But yeah, we’ve lost a certain amount of integrity that should be a non-negotiable requirement to hold any position of power, whether that be in private or public sector. I’m reminded of just recently, we’re talking about other than the Derek Chauvin trial, which has been on a lot.

The Georgia voter suppression laws have taken center stage in political discussion. And there’s a lot of criticism around these laws that have now criminalized things like giving water to people while they’re waiting in line to vote. And they’re pretty blatantly voter suppression oriented. And companies like Coca-Cola and Major League Baseball have taken stances against these laws and sort of cut their ties with Republican legislators. And of course the right is rebelling and saying, “We’ll boycott Coke and we won’t go to baseball games anymore.”

What reminded me of this is the former majority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, now minority leader had spoken out actively in favor and support of the Citizens United decision from back in, I think 2011. The idea that the Supreme Court decision that basically said, “Corporations are people and money is speech and no one should be able to stop the biggest corporations on the planet from being able to spend whatever they want to support whoever they want in politics no matter how much that tips the scales of political influence.”

And McConnell is on record as having backed that. I mean, it’s a very popular Conservative Party idea. And yet when this Georgia controversial voter suppression law comes up and corporations take the opposite stance against the Republican position on this, he’s now on record as saying, “Well, corporations should kind of stay out of politics.” And it’s clearly hypocrisy. It’s clearly mutually incompatible ideologies that have no explanation.

And he’s attempted to sort of deflect this by saying, “Well, money’s okay, but you can’t do anything else.” As if that makes any sense at all in terms of just rationalizing his position. And the thing is, I mean, to your point, I don’t care if he has a position I disagree with, just be consistent with it. Have a set of virtues and stand for something. But unfortunately, you have politicians like McConnell and others, I mean, he’s certainly not the only guilty party here, who are willing to just shift their entire character on the winds of political change.

And, to me, that’s dangerous and it’s really disappointing that we’ve allowed that. That should be the end of a politician’s career to make a statement like that that is totally irreconcilable with something that he’s gone on record with unambiguously in the past. And if he cannot explain away why he feels differently about this position, then to me that shows that you are blatantly a dishonest person that you’re willing to just say whatever you want to shell out for whoever you want and you have no sense of moral compass. But, today, that’s not a game changer at least in the way that I think it used to be in prior generations.

So, to answer your question, how do we move the needle forward? I think it’s recognizing that something like that should be a disqualifier, whether you’re left or right of the aisle. I don’t care. I happen to lean left of the aisle, but if there’s a politician left of the aisle that’s doing that, I want them gone as much as I want McConnell gone. I mean, it shows a lack of integrity.

And whether I agree with your opinions or not, have opinions and be consistent is what I ask in these regards and then we can have a discussion. But if you’re willing to shape shift into anything based on the opportunism of the moment, that spells disaster for the society that you’re purporting to advocate.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, and I completely agree. And I think especially with McConnell and here, I’m laying blame on many generations. The disappointment we have with I think politicians include politicians who are 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 and 80 years old. I don’t know how the oldest, I think that might be Feinstein at 88, maybe. But it’s really any age where it seems like they’re in it for themselves when they should be public servants.

And that is probably the most disappointing thing because then they always, they use the rhetoric of service. Oh, I’m doing this to X, Y, and Z. But the vast majority of these people are just rich, rich, rich, rich. In a sense, I’m talking about our, quote, “political leaders.”

And so they want to keep this job no matter what. And especially today, when they’re talking to each other, they’re not listening to each other and the right and the left and whatever it should be about number one, helping the US. And it seems like both sides have such egos and have such narcissism that my way is the only way to help save America.

And it’s one of those things where it’s like, well, first of all, America doesn’t need saving. You people, the political leaders, are not going to, quote, “save it.” The average person is saving it and is doing an incredible job.

And for me, it’s just utter disappointment with usually how they talk about the average person and then how they talk about themselves in the sense that they are the elite which are there to help.

Now what else would you say about professional political heads such as Ben Shapiro and Bill Maher and essentially these people have opinions about everything and it’s impossible to actually go into great depth about really so many, many topics. And then yet they have to put out content on daily or weekly basis in which they just talk, they just talk and talk on such a surface level. And yet, they move minds when they’re really saying nothing.

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, I mean, it’s a lot of conjecture in the world of political commentary. And I mean, again, depending on who you listen to, whether it’s Ben Shapiro or Bill Maher or any of the pundits on any of the major media broadcast networks will ultimately shape views. I mean, you can see this in the eyes of an average Fox News viewer as compared with the eyes of an average MSNBC, CNN viewer.

And that is the product of sort of conditioned exposure. I mean, we know what classical conditioning is in psychology. We understand it very well. And we know that if we expose you to something long enough, whether you even realize it, you are changing your habits, your behaviors, and your thoughts around the environment that you’re exposed to in this case, the media that you consume.

So I think in a free society that celebrates free speech and communication, there’s an argument around completely unfettered, unprohibited speech. And I just had a prior podcast with Dr. Linda Ashar on this in terms of at what point does speech become controversial to the point, or dangerous enough to the point that it becomes criminal?

There obviously is a point under the law already and we could have a separate debate about whether that point is appropriate, whether the standards are strict enough or too loose. But it is difficult to parse that in a world where people are so hinged on these issues.

And it’s great to see civic activism in that regard. It’s great to see people invested in their country as opposed to if people cared far more about the next season of “The Bachelor” or “American Idol” than they did about what’s happening in their political sphere. I might be even more worried than I am now, which is kind of difficult to imagine.

But I at least applaud that we care. “We” meaning the American society. Many people are strongly invested, even if they’re misguided, regardless of which side of the aisle they fall on. Even if they’re not well-informed, there’s a vested interest there.

But I think it’s worth also pointing out that everyone has to decide which hills you’re prepared to die on. And this is an interesting discussion point that I’ve written about recently that you can imagine a situation where because there are situations where we would say we agree to disagree, but we respect each other and we can remain friends and share a society or community together.

And then there are other situations where there is a line somewhere and for each person that line may be in a different place with which we say we’re going to dispense with the political correctness and the niceties and not pretend that it’s okay to condone this.

Not that we would actively hurt somebody, but that we’re not going to be sort of false friends or fake friends with somebody that we find so repugnant, morally or ethically, that we just have to disavow any connection with.

So you can imagine, for example, by analogy and I talked about this in the article, it hasn’t been published yet. But if you have a neighbor and your neighbor leans to the opposite side of the political aisle from you, whether you’re left and they’re right or you’re right and they’re left, you may not agree with their views. But as long as they’re civil and relatively kind people, they smile when you see them in the driveway, and they’re nice otherwise, you just happen to know from maybe social media that they’re Republican and you’re Democrat or vice versa, is that a reason to make enemies, to sneer at them and to cut off all ties? Probably not. I mean, most people would agree that it’s a good idea to be civil. In those regards, we can agree to disagree, but still be friends kind of thing.

Well, okay, take it one step up the ladder. Now you find out that your neighbor is actively in complete contradiction to your sense of ethical disposition. So maybe they’re an overt racist and then you go on Facebook and you find their page and they’re like actively publishing anti-Semitic or anti-Black views and memes and that kind of thing.

Well, now that kind of goes beyond the scope of different political ideologies and you find this person to be morally offensive. Is that enough to then dispense with the sort of, again, the nice, the small talk and the pleasantries? I don’t know. For some, it may be and for some others, they may say, “Well, look, I disagree with this person and I don’t like what they’re doing, but I still want to be polite, essentially.”

But again, you can take it one step further. You can say, okay, now suppose you find that this person is an active member of the KKK in your local community. They’re going to meetings. They’re burning crosses in front yards. They’re doing all kinds of borderline illegal stuff or blatantly illegal stuff. And even if it’s not illegal, it is so morally offensive as to just shock the conscience.

There is a line somewhere between the first scenario and the last one I described where most people would say, “Okay, I’m not going to be nice anymore.” And, again, I don’t mean to say that they would do anything criminal or actively plot to hurt that person, but they’re not going to play nice and be friends and even pretend to be friendly with someone like that because it offends the conscience so.

And so again, I think we all have to decide for ourselves where that line is, but if I had to offer an observation I would say that of late, it seems like the line is moving further and further in the direction of the first step on the ladder where it’s to say that, “Okay, if you’re a Republican and I’m a Democrat, that’s enough for me to never want to speak to you ever again, period.”

And I think we’ve just got to reassess at what point are we drawing the line. We’re taking ourselves so seriously that I’m going to disavow friends and alienate myself from my community, my neighbors, my family, whoever it is, simply because you watch Fox and I watch CNN or whatever that has.

And I’m not suggesting that people should be friends with KKK members if they find that offensive. I do, and I wouldn’t want to break bread with somebody who did. To me, that’s a terrible thing. But again, that line is in a different place for everybody. So you’ve got to decide where it is. And I just worry that we’re moving to a point of we’re immediately triggered at the highest level by things that should be, if they’re concerning at all, they shouldn’t rise to the level of preventing us from being civil and kind to one another.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, and that’s great. And I 100% think that people should be civil all the time and they should always try to be civil. They should always strive to be kind and try to understand each other. And I really do like how you described the line because some people’s lines are very shallow and they get offended and will cut off ties with people almost immediately, which is not real.

You can’t surround yourself with people who are exactly like you or else you live in the proverbial bubble. And I wish I could remember the name, but Joe Rogan had a great conversation with a musician and he was Black and he would be in the South.

And he struck up this great conversation with this guy who then brought him to his friends and they were all ex-KKK. And so through meeting this musician and talking and exposing and the musician being open to it and not potentially being scared because being around a bunch of KKK people, he was able to change their minds.

And that really reminds me of how we always need to reach out to people. And so even if they do have morally repugnant views and this is where I don’t firmly believe in moral relativism because there are some universal things where people believe in this is a moral good or this is a moral bad. But when you look through history, their morality is really fluid.

Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely, I’m familiar with the story you described. I had to look it up while you were speaking, but it’s Daryl Davis is the name of the musician. And I’ve seen the exposé on the work that he’s done. And I think that that’s an excellent thing to bring up on the topic of our podcast today because that’s proof in the pudding there that it can be done. You can take someone that could not be more juxtaposed to your very existence, let alone your views, for a black man to befriend KKK members. And it’s been, I don’t know how many at this point, but it’s several. It’s quite a few folks that were, that are former KKK members now sort of reformed through the power of kind relationships with this man, Daryl Davis.

And so good on him obviously. It sounds like wonderful work that he does and I hope he continues it. But that shows you that it’s possible. In even the most polar of circumstances to find common ground and to pull people onto the side of rationality to bring them back into the boat of what rational people would describe as common sense, which is kind of a filler term that doesn’t mean much, but the obvious evidentiary conclusions that come from assessing your world.

So yeah, it can happen, but it’s tough. I mean, I’m sure and I’ve heard Davis talk about it and I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you it takes a lot of work and patience.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Oh, I completely agree. And that’s where my thing, is you have to be open to people up until the point of violence or somebody wanting violence upon others. Then that is a line, I think. But then, even after conflicts and war, people still have to reconcile. And so it’s tough. It’s extremely tough.

And it really makes me think of when you throw in religion to there where I’m putting huge air quotes, the “typical Republican” will be say evangelical or a religious person. And then the “typical Democrat” might be a liberal Methodist. They’re still Christian. They’re still all going to the same type of church per se.

And again, there’s many people who don’t align themselves to Christianity or whatnot. But, so many people are coming from the same perspective. And even if you’re born in this country and even if you don’t go to church or don’t call yourself a Christian, you still were brought up in a country in which you were educated with so many Christian holidays and ideas, that part of your cultural makeup is still Christianity, is still some sort of religion.

And so when people disagree, they’re still coming from the same perspective. And so even if you talk to somebody who’s Muslim, that’s still an Abrahamic religion, you’re still talking the same language.

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, I mean, I hate to even bring him up in the podcast because he doesn’t need any more publicity than he’s had over the last four or five years. But I truly believe that former president Trump is largely responsible for the increase in the divisive rhetoric.

Because prior to his rise in politics, both sides of the aisle at least focused for the most part on points of commonality. We’re all Americans, we’re all in this together, we’re all patriots. I remember Obama running against John McCain and John McCain publicly repudiating followers of his who believed falsehoods about Obama that he was a Muslim or that he was a terrorist.  

And he’s on camera, I mean, you can go and find his rallies where people made these assertions out loud on a microphone and he publicly denounced them as “No, Obama’s a patriot. He’s an American just like us. He’s a good man. We have differences in ideas, but he’s an American and we’re all in this together.”

Same thing with Romney. I mean, there was no doubt as to his patriotism and his respect for his opponent. But with Trump came a new ideology, the willingness to divide and alienate and vilify Americans, anybody. I mean the Democrats are do nothing, worthless enemies that are worse than Russians in the rhetoric of the Trump campaigns.

And I mean, you saw this on t-shirts that Trump supporters wore. “Rather be a Russian than a Democrat.” I mean, I’m not making that up. That’s a literal t-shirt that people wore to Trump rallies. And you think about that is game changing. That is precedent-setting that never happened before.

So I personally do blame the Trump administration and the Trump sort of phenomenon for moving this needle in the direction of worse by a lot in just four years to the point now where politicians are no longer afraid to do that. They’re no longer afraid to divide America around these ideologies and call half of America an enemy of the state, which just never happened before. I don’t know how we repair that. It’s going to take a long time, but it’s really dangerous that it happened in the first place.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It is and that’s one of the great disappointments of the Trump years is that he had so much potential as shooting from the hip, somebody who doesn’t care about opinions. He could be a Republican who bucks Republicans and so get stuff done.

And then his administration was basically a typical Republican administration was someone who loved the limelight. And one of my biggest complaints about Trump even from the first time was, do you really want someone to be in charge who has always been in charge and has never been an employee? And that’s a huge difference.

Somebody who’s always been rich. Somebody who’s always been the boss, has his board of directors told him no? Did that ever happen? And it’s extremely humbling. And this humility is one of my big talking points is going beyond yourself and realizing that you’re not the most important person in the world. And there are truly some people who are narcissists and who have no concept of humility.

And to the point to where Trump’s biggest flaw was just the fact that he could not think of himself with many different aspects. And, again, that’s not to say that the Trump administration didn’t do certain things that are fine, of course. They made mistakes. Of course they did. But there was just so much vitriol from both sides attacking each other. And Trump was just the fire that started it. But the reality is that those embers started years before that.

The rise of Fox News and dividing the media landscape into segments where all they care about is money. And so they have their own markets. And with Newt Gingrich in the 90s of having that strategy of a scorched earth policy of not working with the other side. It’s much more complicated and of course we can talk about this for hours and write several books and everything. But at the end of the day, my simplistic view is be humble, let go of your ego and share a meal with someone. You might be able to change their minds. But that’s the only way.

Dr. Gary Deel: Right, I would agree. As long as there’s no active violent threat, I think it’s worth taking the time to try to change your mind. But be prepared for the possibility that it may not succeed. If only not on the first or second or third or fourth attempts and be willing to either have the persistence or acknowledge when you’ve exhausted all your very best efforts at something and done all you can do, because it’s easy to throw your hands up and say, “I’m so frustrated with society because they don’t feel the way I do.”

And I know I do sometimes. When I look at the news and I’m wondering where all of this is coming from, the anger around things like climate change and the fact that again, that has become a politicized controversial issue that just simply should not be. But, in a democratic society, we share our society, our community with everyone. And so for better or worse, we’re forced to coexist and to work together and cooperate in good faith. That’s the spirit at least. So yeah, I would agree wholeheartedly.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Well, absolutely wonderful conversation as usual, Gary. Any final words?

Dr. Gary Deel: Not that I can think of. It’s been very informative and elucidating of obviously the topics that we’ve covered. And I hope our followers and listeners will give these pieces of advice a shot in communicating with their friends and family and neighbors and hopefully, it makes the situation better and not worse. So that’s all we can ask for.

If there’s one thing I would say, it’s that I think the temptation to reserve political discourse and discussion within those subjects of taboo that we just refuse to talk about in society, I don’t think that does anything to help. There’s a feeling sort of a visceral feeling that if we just don’t talk about it, it’ll go away. I don’t know that that’s true in politics. I would contrast that with something like sex or religion, which are, these are the other taboo subjects.

And whereas religion on one sense is you can argue is faith based. So there’s nothing evidentiary that I should be able to say ultimately that would persuade you one way or another because your belief is predicated on an absence of evidence in the first place. So those conversations may indeed be nonstarters.

But political discourse should in theory be based on evidence of what is good and bad for society and what promotes the wellbeing of people within it. So I think we need to learn how to have respectful discussions and not avoid them altogether because that doesn’t move us anywhere closer to unity or consensus or even meaningful and beneficial cooperation.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent and absolutely wonderful last words. And today we’re speaking with Dr. Gary Deel about talking to people who do not listen. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and thank you for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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