Q&A with co-host of podcast Pantsuit Politics Beth Silvers

Nuance in everyday life

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Q&A with co-host of podcast Pantsuit Politics Beth Silvers

Eleanor Dudley, Editor-in-Chief

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Why is it important to have nuanced conversations?

Having nuanced discussions enables us to solve problems keeping diverse perspectives in mind. It enables us to strengthen relationships with each other. Politically, I think the Constitution is a fantastic example of nuance—we have a strong executive, but not a king or dictator; we have a strong legislature checked by the court system; we have a strong federal government that is checked by the states and vise versa. It’s all about balance. Nuance is required in spiritual matters, or else religion becomes nothing but a vehicle for extremism and violence. I think art is an embodiment of nuance. This creative tension really fuels everything good.

How can students have nuanced conversations about difficult subjects?

Recognize that your opinion is not your identity. You are a whole person, regardless of what you think about the role of government, taxes or reproductive rights (just like you’re a whole person regardless of the sports teams you love, the music you listen to, the books you read, the hobbies you enjoy). Also recognize that your opinion is different from a value. You can and should develop values that will inform your opinions, but opinions need to stay malleable. You need to welcome information—even, and especially, when it contradicts your opinion.

What are the dangers of educational echo chambers?

If you are learning in an echo chamber, you’re learning just enough to be dangerous. And you’ll be dangerously unprepared for life in our increasingly pluralistic world. It’s like running an experiment without any variables. You can’t really know the strengths and weaknesses of your thoughts without testing them against the thoughts of others. Perhaps most importantly, over time, you might not understand why you believe what you believe or recognize the difference between fact and opinion.

How do we go beyond saying ‘pro-choice’ or ‘#metoo’ or ‘he’s not my president’ and any other current hot button controversy and really foster dialogue and discussion?

We have to be as specific as possible about what we mean and ask ourselves probing, difficult, truly uncomfortable questions. “If I say I’m pro-choice, does that mean that I believe in unrestricted access to abortion in all circumstances? Are there any limitations I’d be comfortable with? If not, why? And what does my answer say about my belief in government? Is it consistent with the way I view government in other matters?”

And after we probe our own beliefs, we have to probe our understanding of others. I always try to look for the value in the position that most contradicts mine. Why do we need that position? What does it bring to the table that would be missing if everyone thought like me?

How does our language and tone affect and/or define a conversation?

We say more with our tone than our words. We’ve been talking on the podcast about how many people, especially men, are either playing defense or offense in conversations about hard topics. It’s hard to pinpoint the specific words and phrases that indicate that posture—the tone says it all. If we want to have nuanced conversations, we need a receptive tone (which can look different in different people). I worry less about language than about openness. Sometimes we’ll use language poorly, especially on topics like race, gender and sexuality. If we are demonstrating with our tone and our questions and listening a desire to learn, I think we can forgive each other.

What is the ideal outcome from a nuanced conversation? The participants in the conversation know themselves better because of the conversation

How do we learn to have nuanced conversations? How do we surpass emotional barriers, political roadblocks and ideological differences?

I think we practice what is modeled for us, so we have to seek out people who are having these conversations (and understand that they aren’t always entertaining. Most of them aren’t. We need to feed our brains, not just amuse them.). I actually don’t think we’re as divided as we like to say we are—we’re just practicing conflict because we’re consuming conflict.

What role does social media play in nuanced conversations?

I think social media is an open infrastructure where you can find as much or as little nuance as you create and seek out. The downsides of social media—that we’re talking in these short bursts and in one-dimensional ways, often seeking to be funny or provocative instead of thoughtful, that there is harassment, etc.—are well known. I think the upsides are important, too. When someone disagrees with you on social media, and you’re able to engage them with kindness and respect, it can lead to transformative conversations with people you’d otherwise never encounter.

What is the role of nuanced conversations in healing our fragmented country? How do you think conversations like yours on Pantsuit Politics contribute to the national conversation? I’m not sure if I know the answer to that. We have the conversations because Sarah and I believe they are the best way for us to personally contribute to the country’s healing. I believe that more nuanced conversations modeled on platforms with some level of reach could rapidly change our political culture. When I think about how rapidly cable news has eroded our civil discourse, I’m convinced that we could rapidly switch gears in a positive way. It’s going to take a lot of work by a lot of people, and it’s going to take people who usually sit out of politics jumping in.

How do we translate ideas and discussions into action and policy, especially when the government seems ineffective and broken?

I think we have to remember that “the government” is made of people just like us. We have to participate in it, whether we ever run for office or not (and more of us need to do that). I also think that we have to each look for the ways we can individually best contribute. Activism isn’t a hobby. If you’re jumping into #TheResistance to fire off some emails and go to marches with your friends, that’s fine…but it probably won’t be all that fulfilling or effective. In the long run, you have to find what you do best (maybe that’s organizing town halls or working the polls, helping register people to vote, writing white papers on important issues, etc.), and invest in that contribution.

How do we inspire young people to become informed and engaged citizens?

I’d like us to invest more in civics education very early on and use our communities as classrooms. I think city halls across the country should be welcoming students, giving more opportunities to observe and volunteer. I think we should make sure that students know who their local representatives are and what they do. When a school is impacted by a vote, I think that should be a subject of conversation in the classroom. That’s a job for teachers but even more for parents and administrators and the general public. We’ve made everyone afraid of talking about these topics, and because we don’t talk about them, we’re getting worse at the work of governing ourselves. So, we all need to step up to the plate to educate students, invite them to the discussions and empower them to become fully-participating citizens.

What inspired you to participate politically and practice having nuanced conversations?

I realized that I have to be the change I want to see in the world in the best way I can. It’s not enough to show up and vote.

In your opinion, how is the current political climate different from earlier years and what does that difference mean for young people today?

We have more information, and we care less about it. I think we really have made politics a version of entertainment instead of a responsibility. I don’t mean that in a nostalgic way. It’s easier for young people to know what’s going on than generations before them, but that information is overwhelming. It’s impossible to be even conversant on every issue that makes the news, so we default to our party talking points. Focus is a real challenge, so I think it’s more important than ever to ask ourselves, ‘Why do I care about this? Do I? What good can come from this?’

Anything else you would like the share with Seattle students?

Don’t underestimate your ability to contribute. If you told me three years ago that I’d be answering these questions for your newspaper while receiving emails from all over the world about politics, I wouldn’t have believed you. When you do your work, it will make a difference, even if you don’t fully understand what that difference is.

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