Engaging the rage and being neighbourly at election time

It’s the Australian Federal Election next weekend, and like most of my friends I’m nervous at the inevitable outcome that will see Tony Abbott become the ‘leader’ of our country. In the run up to the election I’ve been feeling so dis-empowered and so despairing about the political climate of this country.

I’ve thought about leafleting for the Greens, or helping Get Up distribute how to vote cards, but realistically I don’t think this will help. Everything I’ve learned during my PhD suggests that people are not going to change their minds about things simply because a random stranger on the streets pleads with them. Realistically, our politics are often not decided through a rational process of policy comparison, but rather as an ingrained belief in ‘what kind of person’ we are. I vote the way I do because the people around me whom I trust vote in similar ways and I am like them and believe in the things they do (for an example of just how powerful social norms are in subconsciously influencing behaviour I recommend a look at Griskevicius et al’s 2008 paper Social Norms: An underestimated and underemployed lever for managing climate change).

I live in a suburb with one of the highest proportion of Greens Party voters in Australia. I don’t know how most of the people in my street vote, and I can only assume that there is a diversity of views that the sameness of the houses fails to reveal. I do know however that the people living in the house several doors down are Liberal Party supporters. For the past two elections they have had Liberal Party signs in their front yard.

It’s hard to know how to react to such signs when one rides past them everyday – not particularly good for the blood pressure! In 2010 one of my housemates sheepishly admitted to having given the Liberal Candidates fangs and a snot nose, and riding home late one night the Gazelle did yell out an anti-Liberal profanity. But I felt that this year that kind of a response was a helpless cop out, especially given it looks like the Liberals will win by a large margin.

One of the things that irritates me most about our current style of politics is the intense oppositional nature of debate; you’re for or against, right or wrong, black or white, believer or denier. Given the complexity of challenges we face in the 21st century, climate change, refugees, global financial crises, food security, etc., etc., I feel we need a more sophisticated capacity for nuanced debate.

So, I decided to try apply this approach for myself try to engage in some real dialogue with my Liberal voting neighbours.

I was extremely nervous about knocking on their door and I could feel my heart racing as I approached their house. I rang the doorbell and cleared my throat. A man in his 70s opened the door and looked at me quizzically. I apologised for barging in on him and explained that while I did not usually vote Liberal, I was genuinely curious as to why they did. He called his wife, a 79 year old German woman and we stood on their front veranda for at least half an hour and had a chat.

In deciding to knock on their door, I had also decided to listen as openly and respectfully as I could. I allowed myself to disagree but not to argue, to question but not to retort. This is what Tom and Gretchen (not their real names) said:

  1. We can do anything under the Liberals. Gretchen was particularly vocal that in her experience, under a Labour government workers had to be members of the union. She felt that this gave the union enormous power and meant that if she worked harder than one of her colleagues she was no better off – unions were an opportunity for slackers to free-ride.
  • While I didn’t agree with this argument, it kind of made sense. I explained that I thought my generation didn’t really see Labor as being about unions, but that I personally supported unions because of my own experience in the tertiary education sector. Tom actually acknowledged he could see where I was coming from.
  1. Kevin Rudd has the charisma of Hitler. Gretchen grew up under Hitler and felt that Kevin Rudd had a similar charismatic power.
  • To be honest, while comparing Rudd to Hitler may be a little extreme, I too find his charisma creepy. I remember asking the Gazelle what it was that people seem to love too much about him, why is he the golden saviour boy of the Labor party?
  1. Tony Abbott is a really nice guy. According to Gretchen, they saying goes ‘if you don’t want to like Tony Abbott, make sure you never meet him’. Gretchen had never met him but believed him to be honest, trustworthy and a genuinely nice guy.

While I don’t necessarily agree with Gretchen and Tom, the arguments they put forward above make a kind of sense that I don’t find too confronting. It got a little harder when they asked me why I didn’t vote Liberal. I explained that in particular I was concerned about their climate change policy and their stance on refugees (which is not to say the Labour party is necessarily any better). This is how Tom and Gretchen responded:

  1. Climate change is not real. According to Gretchen climate change is crap. Her evidence for this was that “Greenland would not be called Greenland if it had always been covered in ice”. As a friend pointed out, Greenland was actually called Greenland by Vikings who were trying to make it sound appealing to settlers… Gretchen was also concerned that if we were actually going to take climate change seriously, then we’d be required to go back to living by candlelight.
  • This argument had me flummoxed. I didn’t know whether to burst out laughing or to cry. I did tell them I disagreed to which they responded with a story about how the science of smoking was wrong and it wasn’t actually bad for you – they were living proof. Aside from not even knowing how to respond, neither Gretchen nor Tom was open to listening and anyway, that wasn’t why I was there.
  1. Refugees are paid to stir up trouble. Despite having grown up under Hitler and fled war torn Germany, Gretchen had little sympathy for so called queue jumping refugees – those who arrived by boat. In fact, according to Gretchen, someone was paying these people to risk their lives, and the lives of their children, in order to stir up trouble in Australia. Her perspective was that no real refugee would risk the life of their child on a boat like that. She left Germany because they had nowhere to live, but if it had involved a leaky boat, she would rather have died with them at home.
  • Needless to say I found this very hard to take. I had to stop myself from bursting into tears. I told her I disagreed but she was adamant.

Despite Tom and Gretchen having such radically different views to me, we did actually share some common perspectives. In particular, we all survived off extremely low incomes and felt rich in doing so. We talked in wonder about ‘those people’ who spent hundreds of dollars on multiple pairs of shoes. And Gretchen was baking a cake, just like I do.

At the end of the conversation I thanked Gretchen and Tom for their time. In turn they both thanked me for initiating the chat. Indeed Tom was particularly grateful and said that it was a nice change from the hate mail they regularly received. I was surprised to hear how frequently they had received anonymous notes since their signs had gone up.

And ashamed that that could have just as easily been me.

I didn’t change their minds and they didn’t change mine. But perhaps, just perhaps, we got one step closer to removing the fear.

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4 responses to “Engaging the rage and being neighbourly at election time

  1. If someone knocked on my door and asked me why I voted a particular way, I’d shut the door again. It’s very pretentious. And it’s ‘Labor’, not ‘Labour’.

    • Oh yes, I read something interesting about how the Labor party changed their spelling to be more modern and American. Thanks for pointing that out.
      And I agree, personally I would also be confronted if someone knocked on my door and asked how/why I voted how I did. I guess I considered that I had permission given they were advertising the way they voted. And I did ask as respectfully as I could. Like I said, they were actually really appreciative I’d taken the time (especially because I wasn’t there to harangue them with my own opinions). So if anything I was going for humble rather than pretentious, although I admit I still hold strongly to my own political views.

  2. This piece made my heart ache. What a beautiful, courageous move. It brought so many hard truths about people to the surface – the way people think of themselves as exceptions, like Gretchen and the refugees – and how we magnify out certain experiences as permanent truths, like Gretchen with the unions. Now on to not just synchronised baking, but eating of cake – Marie was on to something after all.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this down octopus wrangler. This is the stuff of life. I disagree that your positions did not change during the conversation – you were reminded that you had things in common and Tom realised that ‘young’ people who are anti-liberal can still have integrity.

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