Be an Upstander

by Remy Medard, from

Ever since the US election, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the differences between liberals and conservatives, democrats and republicans. It is impossible to describe either group without resorting to stereotypes. I’m so entrenched in my own side of the duality that the words I use for the “other side” come out as negative, even when I try to stay neutral. It is really hard to back out of Us versus Them thinking. I don’t think it’s possible to find common ground if I’m going to use divisive words to describe “those people” who are not like me.

As you know, I am a liberal thinker and voter, so for me, “those people” are conservatives and republicans. I am suddenly aware of the dramatic irony of feeling contempt for a group of people whom I feel are nothing like me, yet criticizing them for being intolerant. You may say, “Yes, but you’re not going around attacking people and depriving them of their rights!” But lately I have been filled with loathing for conservative speech and values, and haven’t held back from saying so within my circles.

I am still trying to find definitions that avoid loaded words. Maybe there is no such thing. Conservative and republican platforms started with a small role for government, decentralized government, local control, low taxes, free markets and privately run services. There is a high level of agreement that adults are responsible for themselves, and their safety net is family, friends, churches and charities. Liberal and democratic platforms started with a larger role for government, more issues decided at the national level, higher taxes, unions and trade agreements and publicly provided social services. There is a high level of agreement that adults are dependent on each other and everyone should chip in to create a safety net for all.

Those are fundamentally different views of how we should live in society! Is it any wonder we don’t get along?

Based on the description above, it might be safe to say that conservative thinkers place a high value on what is near and dear – the family, the community, local businesses and a local way of life. They strive to take care of their own so they don’t need outside help. Liberal thinkers place a high value on ideals – equality, justice, diversity – and rely on tax-paid social services to help even the playing field. Conservatives value continuity and tradition. They seek to preserve their way of life and may resist change. Liberals, on the other hand, welcome changes in society, and want to bring about change no matter how uncomfortable everyone feels during the transition – they feel it’s best in the long run.

Think about the battleground issues over the last century: women working outside the home, women having influence in public life, women limiting the number of children they have, employer maternity leaves, day care, anti-war and anti-military sentiments, firearms safety and gun control, tax-paid services such as old age pensions and health care, global markets and protected markets, big agriculture and local farmsteads, big banking and micro loans, natural remedies and pharmaceutical medicine, regulations versus self-governing, the economy, the environment, immigration, citizenship…to name a few.

Based on whether someone identifies as liberal or conservative, you could guess their take on any of these issues. Will your answer to any of these issues preserve my way of life and leave me alone? Or will it bring about change? Will it cost me more? Will it do a better job? By whose criteria? Will it leave people behind? Is it sustainable?

Right now I am feeling the need to say less and listen more. Especially to folks with a more conservative bent, who don’t really want their world to change, or at least want the changes to move slowly, and with regard to their concerns. The world has changed drastically in the last 50 years, and people do have the ability to adapt to change when they’ve been consulted and given information and shown how it can work; shown how the short-term pain can lead to long-term gain. It’s uncomfortable, but it can and does happen.

Am I saying we should slow down the adoption of human rights, equality, diversity and justice for all? No! Am I saying that words and actions of hate need to be considered on par with messages of hope? No! What I am saying is that when folks with conservative values try to speak in a respectful and moderate way, they are often shouted down and assumed to be “the bad guys.” They need more time, more information and more personal/relatable examples in order to get on board with change. But with the quick opposition of liberals like myself, they get shut down, and the learning curve comes to a halt.

I certainly don’t want to listen to raging rants or stand by when I see bullying and intimidation. There are a million things we can do to interrupt the cycle of hatred and fear. This week, like many other bloggers, I feel the need to make it personal and local. I want to listen to ideas I’m uncomfortable with, backed up with feelings and facts and personal stories. I want to say, “I understand how you feel, but…” What if? Have you thought of this? What if everyone did the same thing? Is there another way?

In these divisive times, there’s one thing we all have in common: we take care of our loved ones and want the best for them. Traditional folks may want their family and friends to continue the same way of life because it has worked for them and it’s the best blueprint for the future.  Modern folks see gaps in the old ways and may work for societal change because it’s the best path forward. Both would say they value family, education, hard work and respect. People from both groups prefer to spend their time with others who are like themselves. Conservatives don’t want to be open-minded and tolerant if that means having to accept or tolerate values they oppose. Liberals are open-minded and tolerant of values they pick and choose – but not conservative values.

I don’t see a way out except with communication – moderated, thoughtful, yet passionate communication. And kindness.

Teaching Tolerance has a pocket card that sums it up. It was intended for schools and other places where there is some assurance of safety and support. They use the word upstander for someone who stands up for their beliefs and who is not just a bystander in the face of injustice.

INTERRUPT – Speak out against biased remarks

QUESTION – Ask simple questions to find out why the speaker made the remark

EDUCATE – Why is it offensive? Could the thought be phrased in a more respectful way?

ECHO – Thank people who speak up, and carry their actions forward

I hope I can use this technique, no matter whether someone says, “Liberals are letting the country go down the tubes” or “All Trump supporters are bigots.”

But even more, I hope I can have one-to-one conversations that will help me understand how real, complex people tick. People unlike me. I may not win over converts to my “lifestyle” nor will they pull me to the “other side”. But maybe we can decide not to go down the tubes together.


  1. Megyn

    As an American liberal who is trying to see things the other way, it’s been extremely hard. The conservatives/Trump-supporters I’ve tried talking to REFUSE to look at any data or statistics or reason. I think this is the main issue. I try to share things that are relatively unbiased and science/math based. Yet, even then I’ve had so many argue that statistics is just numbers that can be manipulated any way you want and these very unbiased organizations are all actually very biased and the worst. I don’t know how to have an open conversation when people won’t even accept simple science/statistics.

    • Hi Megyn, I know how you feel. We liberals jump into every conversation with facts and try to educate. It doesn’t work, and I am guessing it’s because so many people can’t relate to data and logic. We feel they should, but it’s not their reality. People come to know things different ways, and they might need to approach a topic through emotion or personal experience or celebrity magnetism. We wish it weren’t like that, so we try to push data even more and say it’s the answer. But how do you break through that first time? Ultimately there are a lot of topics that are completely off limits for casual conversations because they can’t be held respectfully. So that means starting with neutral topics. I go skating every week at the rink and there’s an older man there who skates around and speaks to all the other skaters as we do our laps. He is retired from the business world. He mostly talks about the weather, his family, his neighbourhood and church. I listen a lot. Once he told me he doesn’t read The Globe and Mail (national newspaper) because it has a liberal bias – it does – and he didn’t like it when he heard people criticizing former prime minister Harper. It is pretty evident he has conservative views. I didn’t taunt him when Trudeau won the Canadian election by a landslide and he didn’t even mention Trump’s win this week. Neither of us are apolitical, but I like that we can keep the peace.

  2. I see it this way: If you are a Conservative, and Liberals are in power, you will be angry because people are allowed to do things you think are wrong. If you are a Liberal, and Conservatives are in power, you will be angry because you are not allowed to do things merely because those in power think those things are wrong. (I’m trying to come up with a more elegant way to say that.)

    I really am trying to see the other point of view these days, but it’s tough to do.

    • Yeah, duality sucks sometimes 🙂 It amazes me that the US can even remain a country. But there is such a long tradition of co-existing and local governance. I guess that’s what living in a federation of states is all about. We’ll see.

  3. Fiona

    It’s been such an emotionally draining week, hasn’t it? I’m surrounded by conservative voters who have been extremely forthright in expressing their opinions of the election. I feel like I am open to listening to others when their position is expressed respectfully. But at the moment, most of my conservative contacts feel an almost crusader-like zeal to ‘speak up’ and ‘educate’ the losers (i.e. liberals.) Many are mentioning that they can ‘remain silent no longer.’

    That’s actually a funny side of the fence to be on: ‘the need to speak up’ is something I hear more typically from my liberal friends and tend to nod in agreement with. If nothing else, it’s been interesting to see how plainly irritating it is to deal with people on a justice-league crusade. And yet I know I do it myself on my own issues. My take-away has been that I will try to avoid appeals to natural justice in arguing my own case in the future. Hopefully the case will stand alone on its merits.

    In my experience this week though, there’s just been a lot of mud-slinging, gloating and name-calling from my conservative friends. And it’s really hard to try to listen to the message through all the noise that goes with it.

    • I am surrounded by people at work whose views are like my own, which makes daily life easy for me, but doesn’t improve my tolerance for conservative thinking. I don’t get to practice airing differences respectfully. And when I see different points of view on Facebook, if they are not wildly offensive, I usually just ignore them. In person, when someone makes an offensive statement against a person or a group of people, I have become practiced at speaking up and keeping calm – largely due to people making veiled (or open) anti-LGBTQ statements in my presence, which I don’t let slip by. It does seem to me that a lot of conservative thinkers believe everyone they meet is like them (otherwise why would they be in the same place at the same time) and they often don’t stop to think that I (or anybody) has family members, friends, neighbours and co-workers of different races, religions, genders, abilities and so on. Or they don’t think that I, as the parent of an LGBTQ youth, could have any empathy with them, for having (say) a child with significant physical disabilities. I’m not drawing a parallel between them, but in both of our lives, we are dealing with creating a safe world for the next generation. I live for the day when we can delight and surprise each other with empathy and support…

  4. 1066jq

    There use to be common ground in the middle, but it seems to have disappeared. You’ve written a very thoughtful piece, but many people on both sides don’t want to be reasonable, they want what they want. I’m old, 70 now and have seen so much change in my life time, some for the better and some I’m not so sure. But I accept that change is necessary for growth. I didn’t vote for Trump, but I know many decent, thoughtful people who did. I voted for Hillary, though I personally find her repugnant. Who knows what happens next. I’m hoping moderates in Congress can make sensible choice. I’m also hoping Trump will get bored and resign, though Pence is a real winner too.
    As i frequently tell my daughter, it’s not my world any more.

    • I think social media feeds make people more polarized than they were in the past. And the easy availability of media that promotes extreme positions. If I had woken up in the USA on Nov 9, I too would be saying it’s not my world any more. Maybe that’s how Obama’s opponents felt in 2008. When no one will be moderate or reasonable (or agree on facts) we are all at a loss.

  5. Dar, great post. An old boss used to say “we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them in that proportion.” The media has a hard time with gray issues and tries to paint everything in black and white. Many of us are conservative in some respects and progressive in others. I am fiscally conservative, but progressive on civil rights and social issues, e.g. Unfortunately, the moderate thinkers tend to get drowned out by the more extreme voices.

    Your questions at the end are excellent, but I would add we need to also bring the conversation back to data and facts. Each side in America has its own version of facts, that have varying degrees of veracity. So, on social media people are stating things as fact, which are not so or the fact is out of context. To this day, Trump’s followers will not believe their candidate lied more than any other candidate since fact-checking began.

    So, an old colleague had a great phrase for asking questions where he knew the first answer sounded funny. He would say “Help me understand…..” Such as “Help me understand where you got your facts that climate change is a hoax as that goes against the belief of every reputable science organization on the planet?”

    The next four years will be interesting. Keith

    • “Help me understand.” I love that – it is going in my tool box! I have no idea how to hold a two-way conversation with someone who won’t acknowledge facts, or who holds strong opinions as if they were facts. It shuts down dialogue. Sometimes I have a quiet moment with a relative or acquaintance whom I feel is biased, and when they assert something untrue as a fact, I’ve only ever said, “Well, I heard this” or “I read that.” I like this better because it can defuse the situation and lead to improved listening.

  6. I have family on both sides and that’s made it a lot easier not to get swept up in the duality because, as it happens, we agree on the fact that DT is a terrible person and none of us were supportive of his nomination based on his personal actions and history. Not based on conservative values because they’re actually good people who have taught me a lot about being and doing good in the world and DT does not in any way represent their view of what’s good.

    Also, I see plenty of liberals being just as awful as the gleeful DT supporters, and that breaks down the dual barriers too. So many Bernie supporters gloating that this is what HRC supporters “deserve” for not supporting Bernie’s nomination, as if the GOP wouldn’t have been just as hideous with them during the general election campaign, as if this isn’t a hard place for our entire country to be.

    That said, there has been some minor progress in speaking civilly to people who are just so sheltered by their privilege and fail to realize that the ramifications of this Presidency with this Congress is severe and wide-sweeping.

    At this point, it truly feels more like a divide between people who can care about more people than just themselves, and those who will not.

    • Hi Revanche, I have tried not to reach that conclusion, but it’s inescapable – either you want a better world for yourself/your family/your community, or you want to work for a better world for everyone. Leaving it to the new government to decide who is worthy of rights and services is scary. I am afraid that treaties, agreements and statements among countries will be up for re-negotiation, and isolation and protectionism will follow. However, I agree with you that while liberal thinkers care about people other than themselves, conservative thinkers are usually not among those people. I have extended family with conservative views, but we’re Canadian, and I don’t think they would have voted for Trump, given the chance. I like to think that our conservatives would have looked at his track record in business and his statements. However, the success of Rob Ford in Toronto showed otherwise.

  7. jbistheinitial

    I find the argument that all Trump supporter’s aren’t bigots/racist/misogynists hard to stomach. If you vote for a man who has repeatedly and unapologetically espoused racist, bigoted, misogynistic views, you are tacitly supporting those things and that makes you a bigot or, worse, someone who comes from such a place of privilege that you don’t need to worry about the things he says about basically anyone who’s not rich, old, white, straight, cis gender and male.

    • I could never vote for someone who made the kinds of statements he’s made. No matter how much I wanted change and no matter how low my opinion of the other candidates. I am also baffled as to how any practicing Christians could have voted for Trump, given his personal actions and values. On a related note, do you think all pro-Brexit voters were bigots? We (Canadians) think so over here…we heard that the day after the vote, thousands of pro-side voters were looking up What is Brexit on Google. I would like to think that a lot of Trump votes were reactionary and uninformed. It’s frightening that so many were purposeful. Even if less than half of citizens voted and less than half of them chose Trump.

  8. I love everything about this. I’ve been working so hard at understanding and coming from a positive place. It’s hard. Really hard.

    Have you read Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”? I’m about halfway through it, but it speaks to this exact question. Mr. Haidt uses moral psychology and scientific research to explain the moral triggers that differ between liberals and conservatives, between different cultures, and (I assume, because I haven’t gotten there yet) different religious groups. FASCINATING.

    The answer? We actually have to talk to each other with genuine kindness and curiosity. That seems so simple and yet so impossible, doesn’t it?

    • “We actually have to talk to each other with genuine kindness and curiosity.” That’s exactly what I wanted to say! I honestly think that everyday chitchat can open doors. When I meet a stranger at a public event, it is usually only after a lot of harmless small talk that they’ll come out with a remark that indicates a dramatically different world view that I have. It’s tempting to just wind up the conversation and move on, because I’ll never see them again. But it’s really the perfect opportunity to gently state that we see things differently, explain in a sentence or two, and see if they are open to listening. I will have to read that book!

  9. I agree with much of the sentiment of your post and the comments. I heard an interesting comment recently. That with all the social media we are listening to opposing views even less than before. People simply defriend on FB and other sites, don’t visit sites whose views they don’t agree. So we may have contact to hundreds and thousands of people but they are silos of similar view holders.

    Problems are if we open our contacts to people with very different views, social media does not really allow for reasoned and nuanced debate. And facts and figures never changed anyone’s belief nor immoderate opinion.

    I’m probably too strident myself for chitchat with kindness and curiosity.

    • That is true in my case. I have defriended and avoided contacts from social media if I find their views offensive. I don’t mind if friends have different, reasoned opinions, but that is hard to assess in a tweet or snap!

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