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The informed voter: true confrontation

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Watch every existing episode of “Say Yes to the Dress,” fight a water buffalo, actually take the time to floss my teeth every day. This is a list of things that I would rather do than directly confront someone that I profoundly disagree with.

I hate confrontation. I’m the type of person who will just shiver quietly when my far-too-warm-blooded roommate opens the dorm window in the middle of January or simply seethe quietly when someone repeatedly belittles my beliefs. I think that the reason for this is the connotation that confrontation has acquired within our modern culture. In today’s society, confrontation means expletive-laced arguments between contestants on “he Flavor of Love” or bloody brawls in the hockey rink. America seems to have lost a sense of genuine confrontation. As a result, the prospect of sitting down for dinner opposite and confronting someone I fundamentally disagree with is unimaginable for many Americans. However, that is exactly what happened only a couple of months ago in the dining room of a certain Seattle home.

This home belonged to Washington Post journalist and founder of the LGBT support network It Gets Better, Dan Savage, and his dinner guest was president of the National Organization of Marriage, Brian Brown. The invitation for this dinner date resulted from a speech that Savage gave to the National High School Journalism Convention questioning some values of the Bible in respect to human rights.  Brown replied to this speech with a fiery Internet response in which he defended biblical values and challenged Savage to a debate, telling him to choose the time and place. Savage did: “my house after dinner.” And so, on Aug. 15th, Brian Brown arrived at the door of Dan Savage. The two greeted each other, shared a meal, and then began what came to be called The Dinner Table Debate.

For a non-confrontational person such as myself, the prospect of even watching this video was horrifying. The first time that I tried, I made it about 25 seconds before panicking and clicking the “back” arrow. However, once I mustered up enough courage to make it a couple of minutes in, what I found was surprising. There was no blood. There were no vulgarities. Instead, the two men sat at either end of the dinner table, face to face, and had an actual conversation.

The issue discussed was a huge one. Gay rights and their relationship with the Bible is an incredibly relevant topic today. However, while I certainly learned a lot about the current discussion on this issue, that is not what I ultimately took away from the video. Instead, what I learned was how to have a confrontation. In society and especially politics today, everything is negative and everything is removed. We have different channels that we know will present us certain political views, candidates run horribly negative ad campaigns, and people feel more empowered to attack candidates in the comment box than at the ballot box. Even presidential debates have the candidates facing forward and looking into cameras rather than actually facing their opponents. Everything can be more violent because no one actually has to look their opponent in the eye.

This is why The Dinner Table Debate is so unique: the opponents actually look at each other. If you watch the video, you will see that this does not mean the debaters stop arguing and simply begin weaving friendship bracelets. True confrontation does not mean checking one’s punches. It just means withholding any kicks to the groin. In fact, when the moderator read aloud some of the men’s previous comments attacking one another, the two seemed slightly embarrassed. It turns out that it is a bit more difficult to call someone’s views “venal and ridiculous” when you have just eaten dinner with his husband and son and rather uncomfortable to call someone’s religious beliefs “bull—” when he has traveled thousands of miles just to talk with you.

And maybe this is the key to true confrontation: proximity. Not only physical proximity, but mental and emotional proximity as well. True confrontation takes admitting that your opponent is not a monster torn directly from the depths of Mordor; it takes valuing your opponent and respecting her views. This is not a popular idea in a society that praises outrage and condemns compromise. However, if the purpose of confrontation is to create meaningful change, then valuing the opinion of one’s opponent and demonstrating a willingness to cooperate is really the only way to succeed. Having two people, parties or populations continually outraged at one another accomplishes nothing.

Thus, if we want to learn true confrontation, we should look to the example set by Brian Brown and Dan Savage. These two men are very different and hold very different views. Yet, both took the time to sit down together, listen to the other’s ideas, and respectfully share theirs. This does not me that they didn’t get angry. They did. This does not mean that they even like each other. They probably don’t. But they respected one another and, I would hope, learned something about and from one another. This is true confrontation.

And so, as you prepare for this election season, talk with those around you. Sit down with them, share a dinner with them, look at them face to face and confront them about their thoughts, beliefs and convictions. But in doing so, make your goal not conversion, not outrage, and not violence, but simply understanding. Value who you are talking to, no matter how diametrically opposed he may be, and remember that he is a part of the same family, community and nation as you.

There is an old saying that states, “The family that eats together, stays together.” Perhaps this is could be true for a nation as well.

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