Debate Team Nerd

I was on the debate team in high school and even earned a “letter” like the ones you normally get for playing sports. My first year on the team, the topic was, “Resolved: That the United States should significantly curtail its arms sales to other countries.” I knew nothing about arms sales and spent most of the fall researching the topic and filling little index cards with facts and information that supported various arguments that could be made on either side of the debate. In high school debate tournaments, you find out which side you’ll argue just before the start of each round. During the rebuttals, you must be prepared to address any argument the opposing team makes for their side. The little index cards helped with these responses. If you win and advance to the next round, you switch and argue for the side you just argued against.

A senior, who was the star of our team, helped me figure out a system for organizing the index cards. The best debaters like him filled numerous shoebox-sized containers with color-coded cards on which we wrote responses to every possible argument with supporting expert quotations, data, and facts from academic, policy, media, and other resources. Debaters took great pride in being able to extract the perfect index card from their stockpile to contradict or repudiate even the most obscure points that an opponent might offer. We strapped the boxes to small dollies with bungee cords and wheeled around tournaments in ill-fitting suits like the lawyers we aspired to be some day. The quantity of boxes was used to intimidate opponents.

We practiced our opening arguments after school and debated each other to prepare for tournaments. My mentor had memorized most of his index cards and could argue his case effortlessly and seamlessly, while I stammered awkwardly as I searched through my boxes for a card to fit the argument. By the end of the school year, I understood the issues well enough to feel more comfortable improvising, but by then, the season had ended and I’d have to start researching and learning the next year’s topic well enough to argue both sides the following school year. I was not naturally gifted in debate and rarely progressed beyond the first few rounds of tournaments. Though I was not a compelling orator, I excelled at organizing my arguments and could present my case in a methodical, well-reasoned manner. These skills have come in handy throughout my life.

A strict set of rules governed the format to ensure everyone had equal time to present their arguments and rebuttals. The score depended on both the substance of the argument and the ability to poke holes in the opponent’s arguments. Significant weight was given to presentation style. Speaking louder than your opponent did not usually earn you more points. The debates relied on facts, logic, and sourcing. Appeals to emotions and feelings had no place.

Could a dinner party with guests from across the political spectrum in a politically divisive time benefit from a set of rules for engaging in civil discourse? At the first Blueberries & Cherries dinner, one month after the 2016 election, all the guests started arguing about politics as soon as they arrived. One person dominated the conversation. Others cited dubious sources. The topics ranged from uranium deals to pussy grabbing to Russian interference in the election to tax returns to Syrian refugees and so on. Though I didn’t expect to find resolution after only one dinner, we all left feeling much less satisfied than I’d hoped.

The basic skills for civil discourse aren’t taught in school and most people weren’t nerdy enough to have joined the debate team. Parents don’t teach their children civil discourse the way they might teach other skills like how to drive a car, respect elderly people and help them across the street, or always say please and thank you. Most people simply don’t have the tools for engaging in civil discourse.

At the next dinner, I instructed everyone to talk about anything but politics for the first thirty minutes. Guests awkwardly made small talk until I gave the signal that it was okay to let loose. The short ban on politics without any additional guidance did little to prevent the dinner conversation from ranging about in frustrating directions. Though everyone was polite, we often talked past and around each other. As usual, some people spoke more than others and “facts” were presented without substantiation.

Little by little, the dinners improved, though, as I tried new ways to frame the conversation. Imposing a single topic helped focus the conversation. An experiment with the Jefferson Dinner model allowed everyone at the table an opportunity to speak.

The dinners became more successful when we began the evening with sharing personal stories. At several dinners, I distributed question cards from the “Ask Big Questions” series, which were designed to coax more self-reflective. One dinner began with pairing off a liberal and a conservative and asking them to tell each other a story about when they were their best selves. After we sat down at the dinner table, we introduced our conversation partners to the other guests using the information we’d learned about them.

I found that the more structure and rules I imposed on the dinners, the less frustrated and more hopeful guests felt at the end. Rules and structure reduced anxiety and fear that humans naturally have when encountering unknown and uncomfortable situations. Rules and structure also set baseline expectations of civility, which essentially meant being nicer and more respectful to one another. Adding the humanizing exercises to the beginning of the dinners helped increase trust, which allowed people to be more vulnerable, open, and truthful about the fears and desires that defined their world views.

Most of our beliefs about the world are rooted in our lived experiences, and not data. These dinners provided an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of those motivations and rationales. When discussing immigration, my immigrant mom says, if somebody wants to come to America, they have to do it the legal way and stand in line like we did. She always reminds me that our family was evacuated by the U.S. government at the end of the war and processed through Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, along with thousands of other refugees. They followed a lengthy and arduous process for which they were rewarded with citizenship. She tells me her oldest sister, who’d been left behind in Vietnam in 1954, applied for a visa decades later at great expense to come to the U.S. to visit family and was rejected three times before finally receiving it. She died not long after she returned to Vietnam. No data-based argument I could make about immigration can sway her from a political position supported by evidence from her lived experience.

Winning arguments and persuasion are not the goals of Blueberries & Cherries. The goal is to gain a better understanding of why people hold the beliefs they hold by hearing from them directly rather than through media and other filters. These interactions humanize the person beyond their social media avatar, and beyond the way the media lumps them into overly simplistic categories as if everyone in a group thinks (and votes) exactly the same way. Civil discourse that remains in the purely objective realm is interesting if you’re on the debate team. Civil discourse that asks the participants to be vulnerable and to share personal, humanizing stories can form the basis for meaningful relations that lead to real change in the real world.

Jefferson Dinner

I donated a Jefferson Dinner to a fundraiser auction a few months ago, which was a twist on the Blueberries & Cherries dinners I had been hosting with Trump supporters. Gala attendees donated to the N Street Village by purchasing a seat at my Jefferson Dinner table and then I invited additional guests who I thought would add to the political diversity. Unfortunately, the two conservatives I’d invited didn’t show up even though I’d confirmed with them the day before.

This is how I described the Jefferson Dinner at the auction:

“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend,” said Thomas Jefferson.
Take a seat at the table with Philippa Hughes, who has hosted a series of dinners with politically opposed guests since the 2016 election, and a few surprise guests to discuss the most controversial issues of the day and find our common humanity. Thomas Jefferson’s dinners have been credited with saving our Republic. We can do it again!

I was pretty disappointed when the conservatives didn’t show up and worried that the dinner would turn into a boring liberal echo chamber. I was wrong about that. Turns out, there was PLENTY of dissension and the mood became tense at times. Especially when the conversation turned to race.

Race is a really fucking uncomfortable thing to talk so I understand why people generally avoid the subject. But we have got to talk about it and KEEP talking about it. We’re nowhere near done talking about it, even though many people feel like we have talked about it enough. Conversations about race inevitably get personal. And they force us to confront our own racism. And nobody wants to be called racist. That’s one of the reasons we avoid talking about it. (Andy Shallal’s conversations about race at his business are an awesome example of how to have these conversations.) I’m not great at it myself and I’ve been told that more than once. But I’m not going to get any better at it unless I keep trying.

I had originally wanted to begin our dinner conversation around the topic of economic inequality because I have been wondering if there might be a way we can find common ground there (and because I think this issue is threatening our democracy!). I know conservatives generally feel that rich people deserve to be rich and poor people deserve to be poor because of the choices they make, which is at odds with liberal thinking on the subject. (I know I am oversimplifying here! But you get the gist.) However, I have been thinking about how the parties seem to be breaking apart and there might be a way to form new parties around the notion of “getting money out of politics and ending crony capitalism,” which seems to exist on both ends of the political spectrum. (See this Robert Reich video).

Without the conservatives at dinner, I decided to switch up the topic and suggested we discuss a NYT op-ed I’d read a couple weeks ago that said liberal self-righteousness and willingness to write off a significant portion of the country who supported Trump could lead to the re-election of the president in 2020. That piece was about self-righteousness toward the right, but it got me thinking about how liberal self-righteousness toward others on the left and center could be problematic when it comes time to vote. We’ve had some exciting victories in special elections over the past year and it was awesome to see Stacey Abrams’ opponents throw their support to her as soon as she won the democratic primary. I feel cautiously optimistic.

At the same time, the unresolved dissension at last week’s dinner had me a little worried about mobilizing the left to get out the vote for Democrats in the midterms and in the next presidential election. Our party system seems to be fracturing and I wonder if that could ultimately be a good thing for our country. It’s going to take a while to reorient the parties, though. In the mean time, I’m not sure how to proceed. Part of me thinks we have got to keep voting for Democrats regardless of whether they are perfect on all the liberal issues and change the system from within. Part of me worries that there will be no incentive to change the system from within once they are elected so we need a long-range plan for electing people (who don’t identify with any party) who want to radically alter the system.

My thoughts continue to evolve. I’m scheduling more Jefferson Dinners in the next few weeks. I hope you’ll organize something like this, too. Let’s figure this out together!

Aphrodisiacs for dinner!

A few pictures from the most recent "Blueberries + Cherries" dinner, which was also featured on WAMU tonight! 

The menu:

Red pasta with a blue cheese sauce, purported to be an aphrodisiac.

Marry Me Sicilian chicken, served with coconut quinoa and roasted asparagus.

Blueberry Cherry Crisp, served with vanilla ice cream.

(Some of the pictures were taken by Carmel Delshad.)

Walking on clouds

 

On a short flight from DC to Philly last December, a hairless, gaunt, colorfully tattoo’d man slouched next to me in the window seat, his long limbs politely folded into the small space allotted him.“Where are you headed?” he asked.

“Rome. How about you?”

“I really want to go to Italy, but I’m afraid of Isis. They might chop my head off.”

“C’mon, you don’t really believe that, do you?”

“Yeah, sure I do.”

I suppressed the urge to cite the minuscule number of times terrorists had killed civilian Americans anywhere in the world, and the statistical probability that our little plane was many times more likely to crash and kill us than a terrorist. The 31 minute flight was too short anyway to engage in a conversation that I knew I couldn’t win. The facts wouldn’t have mattered. He simply didn’t feel safe in the world.

I don’t usually like to talk to people on airplanes anyway. However, we’d bonded over cancer during the pre-flight announcements when he mentioned he flew to the National Institutes of Health every two weeks to undergo experimental treatment for a rare cancer that had invaded his body. When I told him I’d survived breast cancer three years ago, he paused, looked me in the eye and said, “You’re in the club, too.”

He’d discovered his cancer the previous winter when blood streamed into the toilet bowl while he was “pissing.” I discovered my cancer when blood began squirting out of my right nipple. He’d been having kidney pain for months before he was diagnosed, but had been too scared to visit a doctor. I’d departed for a month-long vacation in deep denial after the first red dots began appearing inside my bra. He’d lost 75 pounds and been too weak to work since he’d begun treatment. I was intensely grateful that my treatments had cured me over the course of a year and wished him the same.

He recounted a story about partying with a Honduran friend. People often feel compelled to suggest they’re cool with me being not white by telling me about their friend who is a person of color. I wondered if he mistakenly believed I was Latina. I’ve been mistaken for Laplander, Hawaiian, Azerbaijani, and numerous other ethnicities depending on where in the world I happen to be.

He bragged about being a lifelong member of the union of masons. He was the working class white man that I had read about who had elected a narcissistic, thin-skinned, childish demagogue. In my bubble world, I rarely met anyone like him. I was angry with the group of people my seat mate represented. I couldn’t hate this man, though.

As we approached the landing in Philly, I leaned across him from my aisle seat to marvel at the afternoon sunlight bathing the top of a thick, fluffy layer of marshmallow clouds.

“I could walk on them clouds,” he said. I nodded.

We agreed that we’d probably run into each other again in the airport so we didn’t exchange contact information. I told him I wasn’t afraid of Isis in Italy and I hoped I’d see him again to prove it to him.

There's more that brings us together than we think

 

I have stayed in touch with a man from the first dinner who voted for Trump. We exchange messages about political topics and he even invited me to his state society inauguration party. Recently, he told me a story about a Vietnamese man he'd befriended who told him stories about what the refugee camps were like. I shared my fears about what might have happened if my Vietnamese family had not been allowed to come to America as refugees. It was a tiny moment of connection that gave me hope that more was possible.

Breaking Bread

After the election, I invited three Trump voters to my home for dinner. I wanted to understand why they voted for a man who seemed so obviously abhorrent. I’d interacted with a few Trump supporters over social media during the campaign season. However, I don’t think even the best DC spin doctors could have found a way to characterize those exchanges as thoughtful or constructive. To gain deeper insight, I devoured analysis and opinions from experts and pundits on why they thought so many people voted for Trump. I read Hillbilly ElegyGilded Rage, and Strangers In Their Own Land searching for clues from across the country. I felt like I was getting filtered information, though, and I wanted to find out for myself what was really driving those votes. I wanted to meet the Trump voter face-to-face.

Living in DC where only 4% voted for Trump, I knew I would have to search beyond my usual networks to find his supporters. I posted this invitation on Facebook on November 16:

“I’ve hosted scores of small dinners over the years with people who represented a diversity of skin colors, sexual orientation, and economics. Sometimes there were misunderstandings and disagreements, but mostly we agreed on political ideology. Maybe it’s time to invite this new layer of diversity to dinner.… I don’t support or respect Trump. But I want to respect the Trump voter by learning more from him or her by talking face to face and not on social media. If you voted for Trump, please let me know if you are interested in talking over dinner at my house. I’m a pretty decent cook!”

I was inspired by artist Elia Alba, who has been organizing a project called The Supper Club, in which she makes dinner for artists of color to discuss difficult questions about the intersection of visual culture and race. I have also been a longtime fan of artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, who practices relational art. He creates installations that bring people together for a social experience, like inviting visitors to drink tea in a replica of his home. Treating what I imagined would be an uncomfortable dining experience as an art project made the experience more palatable.

No Trump voters accepted my offer, though many liberal friends asked if they could attend. None of the pro-Trump people who had previously commented on my political posts contacted me either. Though Facebook lets you befriend thousands of people, not one of them felt friendly enough to take the bait. I had to rely on friends of friends. One liberal friend introduced me to a former co-worker who’d voted for Trump. She felt reticent at first, perhaps fearful that I was setting a trap for her, but she wanted to learn about other viewpoints. After I reassured her of my sincere intention to understand, she agreed and brought two additional conservatives to the table, one who hadn’t been able to stomach Trump and had voted for Johnson, and another who was a a true believer.

I had no expectations, only curiosity.

The conversation turned to politics from the first moments. We talked about personal details only as they related to politics. When we discussed immigration, one Trump voter told the story of her Syrian grandmother who had immigrated to America years ago. Another Trump voter cited a New York Times article that he said proved Hillary Clinton had used her position as Secretary of State to enrich the Clinton Foundation. I wanted to open my laptop and fact check on the spot. I resisted the impulse. This was a dinner party and a learning experience. I didn’t need to be right and I wasn’t trying to persuade them. I simply wanted to understand. I think I muttered, “C’mon you don’t really believe that” only twice during the two hours we spent together.

Afterward, a friend who writes for DCist saw a picture of the dinner party I’d posted on Facebook and wrote a short piece about the meal. A Trump voter read that article and contacted me through Twitter and asked if he could join the next dinner. After meeting him first in a public place to make sure he wouldn’t murder me and my friends in my home, I invited him, and then started digging deep into my networks in search of two more Trump voters. I wasn’t about to invite family members who’d voted for Trump, or the one close friend I knew had voted for him, too. I was afraid of doing irreparable harm to those relationships.

I remembered a woman I’d worked with over 15 years ago and had not seen since. She’d made some comments on my Facebook page last year that led me to believe she’d voted for Trump. She asked if she could bring her boyfriend after disclosing that his political views made her seem liberal and, in fact, were so extreme that she’d unfriended him on Facebook. She promised he would behave. I also invited three liberal friends to balance out the evening.

I planned a menu of blue and red foods. I set out red salsa with blue corn chips, along with blue cheese and red grapes to start. For the first course, I served a blue cheese sauce over red tomato linguine. For the main course, I served roast beef (red meat!) with roasted Brussels sprouts. I’d wanted to serve blue potatoes but hadn’t been able to find them that day. And for dessert, my pièce de résistance, I served a blueberry and cherry crisp. Preparations included reading On Dialogue by David Bohm to strengthen my conversational skills, and writing down a list of questions I wanted to ask. Finally, I emailed everyone in advance and told them that I would enforce a strict prohibition on political discussion for the first half hour. We would first get to know each other.

My former co-worker brought a bottle of Trump wine. I laughed politely at her joke and placed the bottle of Viognier in the refrigerator, unable to bring myself to drink it. I feared the artificial tannins might trigger an allergic reaction.

After 30 minutes, I asked everyone to place their hands on a baguette and promise to engage in respectful discourse, and then we broke the bread and dipped the pieces into an eggplant dip (purple!). Maybe in the old days, bread was harder and actually broke, because that night we tore the bread apart with some difficulty. Some people got large pieces, while others ended up with small morsels, so we redistributed the pieces to make sure everyone got enough. I restrained myself from stating the obvious analogy.

Then we sat down at the table and engaged in a lively, respectful discussion that ranged across a wide spectrum of topics. When the subjects veered into settled issues like Benghazi or into fake news topics, I wished I’d had that baguette to bludgeon my guests and steer the conversation elsewhere before the mood turned sour. When everyone was talking at the same time about Muslim registry and debating whether it would lead to internment, my liberal friend sitting across the table shot me the “it’s time to wrap it up before I lose my cool” eye roll. I tapped my glass with a fork and thanked everyone for coming and encouraged them to host their own dinners with people whose views differed from their own. Overall, the conversation had been eminently polite. But it was also eminently clear where everyone stood on the issues.

Someone had suggested we go around the table and say what we hoped would happen in the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency. I made two demands: Trump should rebuke Putin and Russian interference in our democratic process, and he should release his tax returns. I knew neither would ever happen and I regretted not offering something more constructive. The next day, I emailed everyone with a new wish for the first 100 days: I’d like to see President Trump follow through on his campaign promise to improve our country’s failing infrastructure.

I believe that the dinner party is an opportunity to speak to each other as human beings and not as avatars. Breaking bread builds relationships that can bridge the vast ideological gap that exists in our country if we are to make improvements that lift up all Americans. We need to cultivate and nurture those relationships in order to find ways to work together to heal the divide that threatens the now tenuous fabric of our democracy. Polarization serves politicians, not what’s best for American people.

There is a basic human instinct to connect with one another. I made no secret of my political leanings when I invited the Trump voters to my home and they were still willing to join me. One Trump voting guest said, “I believe we can all learn from thoughtful and intelligent people that grew up in different communities and have different experiences then our own.” I still abhor Donald Trump, but I don’t abhor all the people who voted for him. I won’t be inviting any of the extreme ones to my house for dinner, however, I intend to host more dinners that bring ideologically opposed people together to figure out how we can co-exist and even find common ground. I hope Americans across the nation will do the same.

Let's Talk

One week ago, I invited Trump voters over for dinner at my house. After posting a picture on Facebook (followed by this piece), I received a couple messages that essentially said, Trump voters are despicable people and your dinners are normalizing them so please stop. 

Some of my immigrant family members would have been killed in their country for holding the wrong political views so they escaped to America and experienced racism and took menial jobs to survive, and they voted for Trump. Is my family despicable and abnormal? My Bolivian friend told me that the socially conservative pastor at her Spanish speaking church instructed parishioners to vote for Trump because they should not vote for abortion rights. Are those working class Latinos despicable and abnormal? A young, white woman who sat at my dinner table was descended from Syrian immigrants, had earned an advanced degree, attends arts events, and she voted for Trump. Is she despicable and abnormal? A middle-aged white man who contacted me on Twitter after reading about the dinner owns a small business and told me his mother was held in prison by the Russian communists for ten years, and he voted for Trump. Is he despicable and abnormal?

I’m angry at them for electing a despicable and abnormal man who is a sexist, racist, narcissistic, thin-skinned demagogue. However, I do not believe they are despicable or abnormal. To be sure, extreme factions of hateful Trumpsters exist. I am not interested in them. But not all people who voted for Trump are hateful. Some based their choices on wrong facts and misinformation. Some prioritized money over people. Some adhered to their socially conservative beliefs. Some hated Hillary that much. Whatever the reasons, I want to understand all of it so I can be part of the solution for figuring out how we never elect a person like Trump ever again. 

It’s only been 40 days since the election. I’m still reeling from confusion and shock. Hashing out our collective pain over and over with like minded friends has been therapeutic. I understand why dinner detractors aren’t ready (and may never be willing) to break bread with Trump voters.

I am ready to fight and to take action. I am going to do so by meeting our political opponents in the ring (or over the dinner table, as the case may be). I applaud my dinner guests for their willingness to join me. 

It would be so much easier to spend all my time complaining to people who already agree with my point of view. That tactic didn’t pan out so well, though. Inviting people to my home and having difficult, respectful conversations over a home-cooked meal is a tool of engagement that I am employing to combat racism, sexism, and inequality of all kinds. 

I intend to find a different, new way forward that lifts up all Americans. To do that, I’m getting outside my bubble and getting really uncomfortable so that I can begin to understand all Americans.