Hello friends, family and colleagues. Some of you have commented that I have been quiet or uncommunicative, so I thought it might be helpful to provide an update as to what’s been going on. This post gets a little heavy, but gets better toward the end.
Work: in October 2020 I separated from my then-employer and have since been doing a combination of freelance bookkeeping and marketing copywriting to stay financially afloat while working on longer-term objectives. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been steadily at work developing a body of online courses. I’m not going into detail about the courses in this post as my work is still half-finished, but I’ll be sharing more about those at a later time.
Mental health: as many of you know, I have long struggled with depression, social anxiety, self-confidence, etc. The struggle has inspired me to build a body of strategies based on a combination of what I’ve learned from therapists, support groups, friends in the therapy field, and my own practical experience. I am planning to use my writing to help reshape the conversation about mental health, and to help other people who have faced predicaments similar to mine.
Politics: Like many others, I have become increasingly distressed about the fact that it has become harder and harder to escape from the negative energy of people’s political rants, diatribes, passive-aggressive jabs, jokes in poor taste, and a general attitude of malevolance and disrespect for fellow humans. This has been the single biggest stressor for me. I personally find myself feeling the greatest degree of alienation when I am used as a captive audience. I am rarely in a situation these days where I am truly “captive” in the sense that I am technically free to leave at any time, but cannot do so without causing a scene or being rude. Examples include going on a rant while in a car (leaving is physically impossible without opening a door and jumping out), or interjecting political commentary at the dinner table, when the purpose of the gathering was purportedly about something else.
You’ll notice I haven’t commented thus far about what I think on subjects like abortion, inflation, COVID-19, etc. If you were hoping I would, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Freedom of speech includes freedom of silence, and for this post at least, I’m exercising the freedom to remain silent. But I mention the freedom of silence here because the freedom of silence points to the most distressing part of the current culture war. I am finding that fewer and fewer people even believe in the freedom of speech any more. I have increasingly encountered interrogations from everyday people. Sometimes the interrogations are overt and explicit, where someone will ask questions such as “so, Dave, where do YOU stand on XYZ?”
Other times, people will try to be subtle (though most of the time, people’s tactics are more obvious than they think). Here are a few not-so-subtle tactics I’ve noticed:
1) Silence-bombing (I think I made that term up just now): making a statement such as “too bad we don’t have a real man in the White House” or “good thing we finally got rid of 45” and then waiting for a response. During the silence, I notice people trying to read my facial expressions. I have an awful poker face, so people can usually get a sense of when I’m having an emotional response, but I also notice that people often misread my face or get the wrong impression about what I’m thinking.
2) Dropping hints, such as inserting a mention of baby formula or some other politically charged topic-du-jour, then waiting to see what happens next.
3) Stage-whispering (talking in hushed tones, or making comments around corners, intending to be overheard while pretending to have a private conversation). If you’re doing this, you’re likely not fooling anyone for a second.
4) Wearing t-shirts or displaying other printed materials such as coffee mugs, pens, etc. with political slogans in settings where people didn’t come to talk or hear about politics. I’m not questioning anyone’s right to wear a t-shirt. I am saying there is a time and a place for everything. You have the right to be inconsiderate, the right to be disrespectful, and the right to act like an obnoxious asshole. Having the right to do something doesn’t make it a good idea.
5) Angle-shooting (this is a poker term that I’m loosely applying to social norms). This is a particularly dirty tactic used to coerce speech. Angle-shooting usually goes something like this: the offender makes a statement such as “I’m glad we’re all on the same page about a woman’s right to choose” or “I’m glad you and I agree that we need Trump back in the White House.” The listener(s) never made any such statement. The tactic is designed to force the listener to either remain silent (thus implicitly agreeing with the statement) or correct the speaker. Generally, the best counter-tactic is to say something like, “I never said I agreed with that,” but I consider it rude to put someone in such a position.
I may call out other tactics such as those listed above as I learn to spot and label what people are doing. I will also recommend solutions for people like me. I don’t know how everyone else feels, but the situation has grown so distressing for me that I find it harder and harder to enjoy simple things. I no longer look forward to socializing like I once did, because nearly all social gatherings have degraded into cesspools of political negativity. I have increasingly distanced and isolated myself from various social circles and traditions that I used to look forward to.
I may be thinking nostalgically, but I seem to remember a time when friends could just have dinner and when everything didn’t have to be a political statement. Now, it seems like everything we do is a political statement. The products we buy, the books we read, the shows we watch, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive…everything. So I find myself walking on pins and needles around people, wondering when the next highly unpleasant exchange is going to start, or which innocuous comment will be the spark that lights the fire.
This post is not in reference to one person or situation. I could probably come up with hundreds of examples if I wanted to spend the time.
If you read the above text and think, “You’re not talking about ME, are you?” (insert puppy dog eyes here), then you and I both already know the answer.
Now that I have the ugly part out of the way, let’s talk about what I’m doing about the problem, and what I hope to encourage others to do as well. I’m going to share here what my practices are. Keep in mind that the word “practice” implies repetition as well as trial and error. If you want to learn the piano, you have to practice many times, and it’s not going to sound very good in the beginning.
1) Reading news from diverse sources. I get my news from a combination of sources ranging from NPR, Fox News, Politico, The Daily Wire, The Flip Side, Prager University, The Daily Upside, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Tangle, The Babylon Bee, Morningstar, The Hustle, The Morning Brew, 1440 Daily Digest, and countless RSS feeds. Obviously it’s impossible to read everything, but I’m trying to get enough balance in my information diet to make sure I don’t become brainwashed by a single information source. No matter how much I read, I still always feel like the least informed person in every room.
2) Regulating contact while trying to avoid cutting anyone out. When I notice people engaging in unhealthy behaviors that make life unpleasant for me and others, I reduce frequency of contact. I am hearing a lot of talk about “cutting out negative people from your life,” and I think this is both a bad idea and irresponsible. I prefer to use periods of separation to process my own emotional responses, assess my needs, and focus on changing my habits. I may need to temporarily distance myself from people and groups where it feels like my authentic self is not welcome, or where I believe I will likely encounter tactics designed to compel political speech on my part.
3) Seeking out groups of NON-like-minded people. Like-mindedness creates a culture of snowflakes, which is what we have today. In the past year, I have joined Braver Angels, a group that actively seeks out diversity of “red” and “blue” members. I don’t believe in the idea of identifying as “red”, “blue”, or “liberal”, or “conservative”, or even “moderate”, or “independent”, but I get why Braver Angels uses color labels. I also attended an America Talks event recently, and I met a good group of folks who were interested in finding better ways to create grassroots dialogue.
4) Writing. I have been mostly silent on social media the past few years, and I think it is about time to break the silence once again. I have come to realize that trying to talk to everybody is functionally the same as talking to nobody. If you are reading this post, I am assuming that you and I know each other, and that we have enough of a relationship foundation for you to be interested in reading what I am saying. Or perhaps you are a stranger and gravitated toward this post because something about the conversation resonated with you. As I write the post, I am planning to send a link to a number of individual people who I think will appreciate the content of what I’m sharing.
5) Practicing public speaking. I’ve been part of Toastmasters for almost 15 years at the time of this writing. I believe that I cannot truly exercise freedom of speech without practicing the discipline of public speaking. We are living in unprecedented times where we can reach global audiences. Why waste the opportunity? It’s in all of our self-interest, individually and collectively, to practice thinking about what we have to say. Thoughtless, impulsive speaking is perhaps the greatest threat to free speech. Good public speakers write before they speak.
6) Creating online courses. This is more politically significant than many may realize, especially in light of the fact that education shapes culture at all levels. I am striving to make education available to more people at a low cost, with no frills, and focusing curriculums only on bare-minimum essentials required to accomplish a goal. I’m highly frustrated with the amount of time schools waste filling kids’ heads with useless knowledge, or worse, brainwashing kids with one-sided views. I believe the world needs more people — a LOT more people, to play an active role in rebuilding the education system. Like I said above, my courses aren’t ready yet, but I’m very close to launching the first one after my beta round is finished.
In case you followed my social media posts from 2017 where I talked a lot about racism, bullying, misogeny, and the other trending topics at the time, I haven’t forgotten and it’s all still on my radar screen. I’ve just been trying to find the best approach, gather the resources to make things happen, all while managing the day-to-day grind of paying the bills. I can’t fix all of the world’s problems, but I’m hoping to model small-scale solutions that other people can replicate.
If what I shared above resonated with you, feel free to reach out, especially if you are interested in being part of the solution with me. As I start to scale things up, I’ll be increasingly focused on building groups and communities. I’m going to need help to make it all happen, and I don’t have all of the answers. Sometimes, the solution starts with simple conversations. If you have any interest in visiting a Toastmasters group or a Braver Angels event, let me know and I’ll shoot you the info.
Take care and be well. I hope our paths cross soon.