When Jim Valvano coached basketball at NC State, he asked a referee once, “Can you T me up [give me a technical foul] for what I think?” “No, Jimmy,” the ref answered, “I can’t T you up for what you think.” “Well I think you suck,” Valvano retorted.
I was thinking about how we get to a place where we can live with diversity of thought recently, and this story came to mind. Eventually, as a species, as a country, as a Church, we’ve got to find a way to deal with our deeply held disagreements within our communities, because what we’re doing now doesn’t seem to be working.
About a dozen years ago, I was supposed to speak at a town hall for people about the Affordable Care Act, explaining the basics and answering questions. This was in the heat of the debate over the bill, and many of these town halls went really badly; honestly, I’d be concerned about physical safety if we had to do something like that today. They were that ugly.
This one town hall at a community center on the East Coast had a pretty good crowd signed up, and then when people started showing up, some protesters did too. The protesters were outside, with signs and shouting things, not trying to come in, but just trying to make a scene.
Selfishly, I thought, ”We’ve got to get these folks out of here before they scare off the people who just wanted to get their questions answered.” So I told them, look, come inside, and I’ll hold a separate meeting just with you guys, so I can hear everything you’re concerned about, and I can take it all back to my bosses. They balked at first.
I said, look, you’re out here because you don’t think anyone is listening to you and you want to be heard. I’m offering you the opportunity to be heard; I will listen to what you have to say, make sure I understand it, take it back to the main office. I won’t try to argue with you about anything, though if you’re interested, I’ll explain my side when we disagree. And if you aren’t interested, I’ll still listen. Plus, it’s summer in Florida. Wouldn’t you rather be inside in the AC than standing out here in the sun?
I think that’s what sold them.
So I took about 35 of them into a little room that was not set up for 35, while a colleague of mine and an expert volunteer ran the main session.
My event went longer. I only played one trick – the most outspoken person, who kept interrupting me and everyone else, I asked to be the note taker, to make sure that I didn’t forget anything anyone said. Whenever this person would start to pile on to someone else’s comments and get worked up, I reminded them to please make sure they wrote down what the other person said so I wouldn’t lose it, which they dutifully did.
At the end of it, I convinced nobody in that group to support the ACA. Nor did I abandon my support of the bill. But I did understand their concerns (and reported them as I promised). And while they still thought I was wrong, and they weren’t happy with my organization for its position, they appreciated me listening to them enough that they grudgingly admitted that we might be wrong, and maybe stupid or naive, but we weren’t evil or corrupt. That was a big win from my standpoint.
I don’t know if we could have that kind of conversation today. It seems like we are far more convinced in the irredeemability of our opponents now. There are so many voices telling us how awful the people who disagree with us are that it’s harder to remember that we’re fellow humans at the end of the day. But the only examples I can find of really changing minds are ones where people who thought opposite things connected on their shared humanity. We could use more of that.
By the way, the ref was laughing too hard to tee Jimmy V up.
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