Django Projects

Agreeing to disagree is a tricky political art

Updated: 2012-11-04T16:33:52Z

By RICK MONTGOMERY and SANGEETA SHASTRY

The Kansas City Star

Never bring up religion or politics, our parents said.

Yet campaign ads won’t let up, and the Democrat in the next cubicle email-blasts another “binders of women” joke, and you think Obamacare will save people while your spouse believes it will kill. Politics isn’t just politics; it envelops racial and gender issues, life, death, taxes and, yes, religion — so who among us shall never bring it up?

Decision 2012 is two days away. And long after the votes are counted, Kansas City area pals Jim Huffman and Vance Hall — sparring, outspoken rivals in their political views — will still go hunting together.

No matter the election outcome, Caitlin Hornick, a Mitt Romney conservative, has every intention of marrying Chris Gard, the guy who stormed out of her apartment after she criticized President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address.

For Maple Woods Community College student Amanda Price, government-backed loans are vital. To her parents, they’re a weight on the national debt.

And guess what? They’re going to love each other regardless — their political disagreements starting out with a teasing, “Hey, did you check out the newspaper today?”

Experts say our parents were correct about keeping politics out of certain discussions. In many workplaces, for example, railing about illegal immigration to a colleague might constitute harassment.

But with friends and loved ones, the old adage may so restrict conversation that it damages relationships: OK, the family parakeet is a safe talking point, but you dare not speak of the elephant (or donkey) in the room.

“I tell couples and families to just listen to the other person,” said Brian Heydon, a family therapist in Kansas City. “Listen, and repeat back what you really hear, and it turns out that very few people make no sense whatsoever.

“If I can learn to see your political views in the context of where you come from, your whole life story, then you do make sense …

“In relationships there has to be a healthy middle. And in that middle is where magic can happen,” Heydon added. “One of the nicest things I’ve learned in life is that I don’t need to be right.”

His brand of reasoning came to bear on the courtship of Hornick and Gard, both 24 and recently engaged.

They’d been dating four months in early 2009, when the two were students at the University of Missouri. Hornick’s political science professor assigned her to evaluate Obama’s first address to Congress. As the couple watched the president discuss his healthcare plan on TV, Hornick started saying things that stunned her boyfriend.

“Nobody should expect a freebie,” she said, or words to that effect.

Her boyfriend responded: “What about an impoverished child needing ongoing care to treat cancer? Is it right to let him die?”

And from there, more surprises spilled out. Gard wasn’t much of a believer in God. Hornick was raised to embrace faith and personal responsibility. Someone brought up abortion.

“I’m just going to leave!” Gard barked.

Hornick recalled: “That’s the first time we realized … oh.”

They later texted each other their apologies and regrets.

Hornick explained that being the oldest daughter of agreeable, church-going parents, she never had her opinions challenged. Gard allowed that his girlfriend was, in fact, bright and gifted in expressing her views, and she did care for her country.

Watching the first 2012 presidential debate, the couple devised a drinking game:

One would down a shot whenever Obama mentioned Osama bin Laden. The other would throw one back every time Romney said Obamacare.

“That night turned out just fine,” said Gard.

Their wedding is set for June.

Different brains?

Timothy Osburn of Parkville, a self-described “ultraliberal,” vents through social media.

“I can’t keep this stuff bottled up inside,” said Osburn, 60. “I feel so strongly about these things I have to tell people…

“To me, it’s so clear. And I just can’t understand why, when presented the facts, people can’t understand.”

Recent neurological research suggests we can’t help ourselves. A report out of University College London contends political conservatives and liberals possess slightly different brains.

Liberals tend to have a bigger anterior cingulate cortex, a region that becomes active in moments of uncertainty or conflict, the 2011 study found. Not to be outdone, conservatives carry around a larger right amygdala, which lights up in response to threats.

If that’s true (the researchers ascribe only 75 percent certainty to their findings), Osburn’s anterior cingulate cortex is at odds with the hefty right amygdala of his sister-in-law, a Romney backer.

“We actually do our bantering through Facebook,” Osburn said. “We just have fun with it and avoid talking about it in personal life. We find it’s also easier to (get out our) feelings and positions through Facebook than it is to have an argument face-to-face.”

Social media can be dangerous, however, if an employer disagrees with your politics.

In Virginia, sheriff’s deputy Daniel Carter was fired in 2009 after he clicked the thumbs-up “Like” on the Facebook page of a political rival for his boss’s seat. Carter argued in court that a “like” should be protected by his free speech rights under the First Amendment.

A federal judge disagreed, saying the simple click of a mouse is “insufficient speech” to warrant constitutional protection. Carter is appealing.

Political expressions in the workplace can stir trouble.

If you work in the public sector, governments are obliged to respect free speech but are barred from coercing participation in an election.

In the private sector, bosses have every right to order their employees to keep their traps shut.

Partisan talking points, made over and over, “can bleed into harassment,” said employment lawyer Sue Willman of the Spencer Fane law firm. A co-worker’s rants about abortion rights, illegal immigration or gay marriage could impinge on others’ right to work without their religion, ethnicity or sexuality being judged.

“Most employers just don’t want to hear TMI — too much information,” Willman said. “People are naïve to think that what they say or what they post online isn’t going to affect how others view them.”

Bryn Myers, who runs Economy Lumber & Hardware in Warrensburg, Mo., agreed: “My dad taught me a long time ago, you don’t get political in business.

“Customers come in and share their ideas, and I just smile and nod.”

If politics can’t be avoided, co-workers should strive to empathize and practice common sense, agreeing to disagree, and just watch how relationships at work can improve, experts said.

“On the whole, I think it’s a good thing to talk about political issues with people we care about, and among the people we know best are those with whom we work,” said professor Lee Bolman of the Henry W. Bloch School of Management at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“The problems arise when I start insisting I’m right and you’re wrong.”

‘Do your homework’

Longtime hunting buddies Huffman and Hall — respectively, a Democrat and member of Sheet Metal Workers Local 2 and a right-leaning plumber from Dearborn, Mo. — have learned to have fun with their political differences.

Huffman, 55: “Vance and I went through the Clinton era, the Bush era, now Obama. Each of us has been on the winning end and losing end.

“Vance was saying 15 years ago, ‘(President Bill) Clinton is going to take away my guns.’ Well, here we are out hunting together in the Obama era, and I tell him, ‘Dude, you still got your guns.’ ”

Hall, 46: “We’d never let our political views get in the way of our friendship. I know I’m not going to change his mind. In fact, Jim and I both agree: The most important thing is that you do your homework as an American citizen and go out and vote.”

College student Price, who has taken out loans to attend school, can argue with her parents over the national debt without anyone getting sore. She is not so inclined to discuss politics with friends: “It can create horrible tension. It could end friendships.”

And there is Erik Snowberg’s argument, which goes: Why argue? Regardless of who’s elected to lead, life won’t change much.

“I get nervous when I speak to groups and make that case,” said Snowberg, a professor of economics and political science at the California Institute of Technology.

“But I’ve looked at presidential elections going back to 1880. And from an economic perspective, it doesn’t matter a whole lot who wins.”

When a Republican prevails, the Dow Jones Industrials tend to trend up 2 percentage points in the weeks after Election Day, Snowberg said.

The markets may dip a similar amount after a Democratic win, but recover.

“Congress almost always stays the same. The Supreme Court is still the same,” Snowberg said.

“For most people, really, this isn’t going to be a big deal.”

Call him a jerk if you want.

“Getting all worked up over an election is good for our democracy,” he said. “It makes us show up to vote.”

To reach Rick Montgomery, call 816-234-4410 or email rmontgomery@kcstar.com. To reach Sangeeta Shastry, call 816-234-4690 or email sshastry@kcstar.com.

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