Old Brain, New Brain, Cross-Partisan Dialog

Old Brain, New Brain, Cross-Partisan Dialog
By Penn Garvin, Lois Passi, Wade Lee Hudson

Penn Garvin, an activist and organizer living in rural PA recently wrote the following:

How to Listen:

(1) Put aside your own beliefs and enter into new territory as an anthropologist

(2) Watch your reactions to what you hear – when do you get angry, defensive, scared, etc. – try to understand how you are being triggered

(3) Try to listen for what is the anger, fear, etc. underneath what the other person is saying – don't just listen to the ideas, policies, “what we should do” that they are saying

(4) Validate with the other person anything that you can – don't be fake because people sense that – but are there things being said that make sense to you even if you don't agree and maybe there are things being said that you agree with in part

(5) Don't try to work anything out or agree on anything at first – just be able to feed back to the person accurately what they have said to you so that you both know that they have been understood.


Lois Passi, a Unitarian Universalist living in PA who works with her local United Way to end poverty, recently included in one of her sermons the following:

•Old and New Brain:

The old brain’s job is to detect threats to survival, and to respond to those threats either by fighting the enemy, fleeing from the enemy, or if neither of those is possible, hunkering down and enduring (fight, flight or freeze responses).  If political matters are seen as touching on our very survival, this explains why the old brain is activated. We might fight (rallies, protests, elections, etc.), flee (make plans to move to Canada or move to a different part of the country), or freeze (be in denial about the reality of climate change, stay  home on election day). The old brain responds quickly, in a fraction of a second, because it is responding to imminent danger. If someone is threatening to harm you, you don’t have time to process what is going on. You experience a shot of adrenalin and an impulse to fight the enemy. Likewise, old brain political reactions occur just as quickly, and with just as much energy and urgency.  That is why politics is such a touchy subject. That is why we need advice about how to handle family conversations over the Thanksgiving table. It is also why someone was killed in Charlottesville. Primal instincts rule with politics because, as politics is currently practiced, it is an old brain activity. And if we see justice as largely occurring in a political arena, then justice has become an old brain activity.

•Since the old brain is only concerned with survival, it doesn’t care about leaving the proverbial dead body on the ground—and often does.  If someone is threatening to harm me, the old brain is fine with my killing that person, as its only goal is my survival. The old brain uses stereotypes to distinguish dangerous people from those who are safe.  The world is divided into “us and them” -- democrats and republicans, enlightened and “stupid”, White and non-white, and so forth. This allows us to identify our enemies and fight them. Some forms of fighting are fairly primitive (such as physical attack), while others are more sophisticated (a speech, a white paper, or simple avoidance of the offending parties). Beware!  We may be intellectually sophisticated, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t engaging in primitive, reptilian responses.

•The old brain will do whatever it takes to survive.  That is why politicians of all persuasions have been known to do devious things in the name of winning, whether making shady back-room deals to get a piece of legislation passed, manipulating the press in order to win votes, lying about opponents, or quietly supporting dictators to protect America’s interest.  But since the old brain only thinks short-term, it doesn’t take the long-term consequences into account. It doesn’t consider the fact that, by making enemies and fighting a lot, it makes more and more enemies, setting up more and more fights. Even its own survival will ultimately be in question, as one cannot fight forever without eventually tiring and being defeated.  In the long run, old brain strategies do not work. This may be why we evolved to develop a frontal lobe, our neo-cortex, the part of our brain known as the “new brain”. This part of the brain is more cognitive; it thinks things through deliberately. It slows down the whole process. It creates new possibilities. It is this part of the brain that can ask whether or not THIS brown person is really dangerous, and refrain from overreacting, --or even make a friend-- without worrying about survival.  This part of the brain can contemplate true peace. This is where the spiritual work of justice can be done.


Wade Lee Hudson recently wrote the following:

How Partisans Can Talk With Each Other 

Party activists wisely reach out primarily to voters who’ve previously voted for their party. Encouraging those voters to vote for the party again, or get active in campaigns, makes sense. Nevertheless, there are occasions when partisans encounter members of the other party, such as workplaces, family gatherings, and religious communities. And some projects such as Better Angels and Living Room Conversations facilitate cross-partisan dialogue. Sharpening understanding about how best to engage in these interactions can be valuable, and can contribute to shifts in electoral results. 

Along that line, the following are some suggested principles for how rational partisans might best engage with rational partisans of the other party. Written from the point of view of one who votes Democratic, some of these guidelines address specific issues that may differ from a conventional Republican approach. Different, though similar, guidelines could be written from the point of view of a Republican. Feedback and suggested additions to these ideas are welcome. (These guidelines also apply to other situations of strong disagreement.)

  • Don’t waste time arguing with people who are dogmatic. Such arguments reinforce their opinions.

  • Refrain from trying to convert or persistently persuade the other.

  • Tell the other that you’d like to find points of agreement before discussing differences. When you hear one, say something like “I agree” and move on to other issues.

  • Focus on trying to better understand the other. Focus on honest non-rhetorical questions. Each individual is unique. No label fully describes anyone. Curiosity is rewarding. Understanding is inherently valuable, regardless of where it leads.  When in doubt about what to say, simply ask: Why?

  • The more you understand others and the variety of opinions they hold, your actions and public proclamations can be more effective.

  • Don’t worry if the other shows little or no interest in understanding you and your opinions. Eventually, if your effort is authentic, the other will likely ask you at least a question or two about your opinions. At that point, you may help shift the other’s opinions, if only by planting a seed that flowers later.

  • Initially, avoid controversial, abstract generalizations, like: “Big government is bad.” Maybe start with questions like, “What American ideals do you agree with?”

  • Ask concrete questions like: What do you think about Social Security? Medicare? Should prisoners be able to vote after they’ve served their time? 

  • Then approach some more difficult questions that, in your mind, need debate and negotiation. Is free speech important? Should someone who insists that they love America be told to leave the country because they express strong criticism of certain policies? Should millionaires pay more in taxes than ordinary people do? How much?

  • Concerning racial issues, ask: Do you believe blacks are born inferior to whites? (If they reply Yes, comment, That’s the standard definition of racism. Do you consider yourself a racist?) Do you believe police officers are more likely to shoot an unarmed black man? Do you agree that at least until the 1980s some banks would often lend to lower-income whites but not to middle-income or upper-income blacks?

  • With regard to offensive comments, say, That comment offends me, I find that comment offensive, or That comment seems to reinforce the belief that [the group mentioned] are born inferior. Avoid labels like “You are a racist” unless the other acknowledges a belief that the group in question is born inferior.

  • Explore the pros and cons of different positions. Demonstrate that rational discourse on difficult issues is possible. Maybe reach some agreements, or agree to disagree.

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