I am publishing this post just before Thanksgiving Day, a day that can present a potent mix of joy and aggravation. Although these ideas are especially applicable on that day, they are worth considering for a day featuring a family event or any day at all.
In my work to prevent and resolve conflicts with intergenerational families and their businesses, I often see the damaging influence of demonizing. I challenge you to take a break from demonizing, for one day. If you relish a challenge, pick a day with a family get-together: these days can present an especially potent combination of joy and aggravation. (If that seems too daunting, choose an ordinary day and work up to a tougher one.)
As you survey the scene, consider all of your challenging relatives, friends, and any mystery guests. Include all the people whose eating, dressing, or piercing preferences are unlike yours, those who do too little or too much to help, those who whine, drink too much, were always Mom’s favorite, owe you money, root for the wrong team, and, of course, all whose politics are not like yours. Now, commit to taking a one-day break from demonizing. As in, don’t label anyone as evil, portray anyone as wicked, paint anyone as soulless. Also, take a time-out from cattiness, biting and hurtful sarcasm, and eye-rolling that drips with meaning. For one whole day.
This is a difficult challenge. Demonizing is powerful. It is possible to resist demonizing, but it requires determination.
To begin with, it’s simple and quick to demonize: it can be a knee-jerk reaction, with little or no thought required. It’s also appealing: demonizing eliminates the need to put any effort at all into doing something about a problem. No point in devoting time or energy to trying to resolve a conflict, because it won’t make any difference. My hands are tied; it’s all the fault of that other person – someone whose qualities as an individual make progress impossible. No need to evaluate the person’s views if I scorn the person as unreasonable, untrustworthy, or undeserving.
Once we start demonizing, it’s easy to continue. Much has been written about confirmation bias: the tendency to look for, interpret, and remember evidence or information that supports one’s existing beliefs and theories – and to discount or disbelieve information or evidence that does not. Demonizing is even worse. If I have rebuffed the actual person as unworthy and evil, I won’t even get as far as considering information or evidence that might shed light on my views or on theirs.
Also, let’s be honest here: it can be oh-so-satisfying to demonize. Secure in my unshakeable belief that I am correct, I can disdainfully reject anyone who fails to see that my perspective is the only valid one.
So, why bother to take a day off from demonizing? Don’t confuse a short break from demonizing with “giving in” or capitulating on your principles.
Stop – just for a moment – and genuinely consider how well demonizing is working for you. Granted, it is quick, easy, appealing, and oddly satisfying. Are there other – true – benefits? Can you name one?
Next, are there costs? Is demonizing emotionally draining to you? Does it help to ensure that a bad situation will continue because it’s futile to commit to trying to fix it? How much does it cost you, in every relevant unit of measurement (not just dollars)?
If your cost/benefit analysis leads you to conclude that you shouldn’t attempt to stop demonizing for a day, then you should recalculate because you are doing something wrong. If you reach the same conclusion again, keep it to yourself, and avoid ruining the day for anyone else. (Please try the calculation again soon.)
If your analysis leads you to decide it’s worth it, for one day, to humanize and not demonize, give it your best shot. You may be pleasantly surprised.