Remember those arguments you used to get trapped in as a kid?
The ones that you had to keep going at, like picking a scab, even though it hurt and it was making everything worse, and you were going to end up with a horrible weeping mess afterwards.
Arguments about property. ‘That’s MY Furby!”
About boundaries. ‘No girls in this den!’
About truth. ‘Your Dad’s not really a racing driver.’
About honour. ‘But you promised!’
Right now it feels a little like the world is watching one of those arguments. Instead of two six-year-olds in a primary school playground, it’s the presidential candidates of the United States of America.
If he loses, Donald’ll be turning to the appeal courts, all: ‘Moh-oh-ohm. They didn’t vote for me. TELL them!’
Like the time Laura Watts put Jackie Noonan in the big bin outside Mrs Turner’s class, there’s no way this argument can end well. Never before has the debate felt so claustrophobic, nor the two sides so close, in being so bitterly divided. Never have such unpopular, imperfect candidates been so inflated by the anger of the people they seek to lead. Anger poured into binaries: truth and lies, black and white, for us, against us.
Anger is necessary. There is a lot to be angry about in America right now. But just shouting louder at each other achieves nothing. Like the EU referendum, the way people will vote depends on what’s real for them. What they, through their lived experiences, hold to be true, and how that fits with the pictures in their mind of the US and its future.
So much of the way we see the world, our self-evident truths, are sculpted from the place and time in which we’re born. You feel it best if you’ve ever gone somewhere new to live, felt out of place. Made the effort it takes to make sense to people, to explain yourself. You see that values come from a tapestry of experience only possible in one particular place, at one particular time. How meaning is sliced differently, even if you’re using the same words. Something I encountered working in Ibadan years ago.
‘Open-minded’, the way many of my Nigerian friends and colleagues used it, meant ‘outspoken’: sharing what’s on your mind, giving your opinion. Whereas most British people would use it to mean ‘trying to see both sides of an argument’: not making up your mind, listening to a different point of view.
The same phrase. Two different meanings. Crossed wires. Confusion. Incomprehension. But you can’t know what you don’t know, until you talk about it. (And boy, did we.)
‘The trouble with having an open mind, of course,’ said Terry Pratchett, working in the British idiom, ‘is that other people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.’
Anger deserves open-mindedness, in both Nigerian and British senses. People need to speak up: people need to listen. Anger needs more than infantile argument. It needs to tell its story.
Stories are the opposite of arguments. They keep us grazing the edges of our own beliefs and assumptions. To help us see what’s already in our so-called open mind. And to check whether it really ought to be there.
When we’re sucked into a story, we see through someone else’s eyes. We make the leap into another person’s skin, their world. We get to feel it from the inside. We get another reality to the one we’ve just so happened to be born into. We get practise at seeing things from another point of view. I think this makes us better people.
On Wednesday, the anger won’t be going anywhere. But the argument has to end, and the hard work of understanding begin, for the sake of the story every American is living. No matter how hateful their words, pages that get ripped out can never be rewritten.