No doubt about it: We live in interesting times. It’s interesting enough that ordinary people routinely communicate with each other from opposite sides of the globe. But add to that casual miracle the fact that while we’re chatting, there are multiple wars raging; slavery persists in spite of the leaps we’ve made with regard to human rights; and the Middle East is still as tangled a web as people have ever woven, and one can see why ‘may you live in interesting times’ is widely regarded a curse. At its best, it’s a mixed blessing.
For those of us lucky to be at a safe distance from the frontlines of physical conflict, one of the most bedeviling problems of life in interesting times is how to talk about them without starting another fight. Few of us keep company with only those who always agree with us completely – nobody loves a toady – and few of us are such adept conversationalists that we can always tactfully dodge those classic social minefields: Religion and politics.
What’s a conscientious geek to do? Clap hands over ears and run ‘lah-lah-lah-ing’ from the chat room every time someone mentions teabags, stem cells, or Egypt? That’s both unlikely and unproductive. No, all that’s really called for in interesting times is for grown-ups to speak and act like actual grown-ups. Contrary to the obvious, the high road is well-traveled enough that there’s even a map. These are some landmarks:
- Educate yourself. And whenever you wander into a debate about something of which you’re uninformed, be honest; either excuse yourself from the conversation, or admit that your remarks are purely speculative.
- To preserve respectability, remember that you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. If the evidence shows that your position isn’t based in reality, accept that and move on.
- Acknowledge your biases. Everyone has them, and it’s best to be up front about what’s shaping our arguments.
- If you arrive at irreconcilable differences, curtail the conversation before sacrificing civility. Everyone can depart with grace.
This week, I engaged someone in a grown-up conversation about Egypt. We’re both passionate, opinionated people, but neither of us was willing to ruin a friendship over a disagreement in which there is no clear right or wrong, especially since neither of us is in a position to resolve the problems we argued about. What follows is an abbreviated transcript:
Anonymous: The Mubarak regime has resisted US demands, and there’ve been no consequences. The US keeps reiterating that it won’t decide for the Egyptian people how things will go, which means that they won’t force the government to step down, and Mubarak is calling the bluff.
Kay: Well, it’s hardly our place to do that, and the Egyptians would resent the presumption.
Anonymous: No, but we can and should be withholding aid from the current regime, which all Egyptians would get behind. Many of them are furious about the military aid in the first place.
Kay: We probably will, but we have to do it legally. That aid is all bound up in treaties we can’t just blow off. America already has too ugly a history of that to begin with.
Anonymous: The part that’s frustrating me is that the US is still acting like they believe anything is going to change. The Mubarak thugs haven’t been called back, the army is starting to spread nasty rumors, and Mubarak still refuses to leave.
Kay: I think the US is acting like a party with a solid long game if they don’t ‘screw the pooch’ early on. If we rush, even to do what we know is right, then it will look like we really were interfering more than is proper all along. Whatever we do, it can’t look like the US has greater influence in Egypt than the Egyptian people have. Not even if it’s sadly true. That will sabotage any future government there.
Anonymous: If the US says “we’re withholding aid until Mubarak’s regime is gone and free elections are on the way,” then I think the army will know who to side with. If the US doesn’t do that, the protesters are screwed.
Kay: It’s not appropriate for us to act as the deciding force. If we do, the people will have a legitimate beef with us. I’m not arguing that withdrawing aid is the wrong thing to do, but we can do that without doing it in a way that invalidates the people as the ones driving change in Egypt. Obama is clearly looking for that fine line to walk and looking for the correct time and method to do the right thing.
Anonymous: I’m fine with that but I don’t think it should wait because it means more people will die.
Kay: You invoke death like the specter of it will change reality. The protesters know violence is possible, and still they protest. They are responsible for themselves at this point. The best thing the US can do is whatever will bolster the people’s power, rather than undermine it.
Anonymous: I freely admit to seeing this aspect in black and white: If doing something now as opposed to doing it later means fewer people will die, then that thing should be done now. I would make a lousy politician.
Kay: I know. I’m sorry this is a point of contention. It’s unexpected, but understandable. Right now you seem caught up in the spectacle, and that’s why I’d really like to exercise my license to unplug from this conversation. You are shaking my cool, but I’m trying to embrace the perspective that distance allows.
Anonymous: I… can’t really do that. But I’ll try not to talk about it with you anymore.
It was an uncomfortable conversation, to say the least, but comfort is a luxury while we live in interesting times.