Arguing about Coke versus Pepsi

I have a confession to make.   I wasn't always the nice, friendly, good listener that you see before you.   Well, maybe I'm still not, who knows, but I'm writing this because I want to talk about my trajectory in that direction, and why I think it's important.

I work in a standards body, and have for the past twenty years or so.   I've been through a lot in that time.   When I started, I was kind of an asshole.   When I started studying Buddhism, one of the things that I really appreciated about it was that it gave me an objective framework for thinking about that.  Let's be clear—it wasn't a mystery to me that I was an asshole.   I knew it, and it wasn't something I particularly liked about myself, but I thought that's just the way I was, and that I might be able to turn the dial a little way away from asshole, but the fundamental operation of "me" wasn't going to change—it was going to be a struggle.

The Buddhist practice of virtue wasn't about being better than others, holier-than-thou, anything like that.   It was just a set of heuristics that I could follow that, if I were successful, would result in me being less of an asshole, and maybe even sometimes a nice person.

I remember a conversation I had with someone I worked with on an open source project.   This is someone that I argued with all the time, and I thought he was a totally poisonous person, a problem, someone without whom the project would be much improved.   I thought that about a lot of people in the project.   One day we were talking about something.  This was after I'd started practicing Buddhism and was doing a practice of mindful review, where I would just stop every so often and review how compatible my behavior for the past, say, two hours, was with who I was trying to be.

And so I'm talking with this harmful, poisonous person, and he says "you know, you really treat me incredibly badly."  My usual reaction to this would have been to fire back, but the mindful review practice had been working its magic on me, and when I heard him say that, a little part of me stopped and said "wait a minute, maybe he's telling the truth."   And so I stopped and thought about it, instead of firing back.

My conclusion was that he was right.   And so I just said so.   I said "you're right.  and I'm sorry."

He didn't say anything for about twenty minutes.   And then he said "I accept your apology."

The point of this is not that everything got better after that—it didn't.   The project had real problems.   But letting go of the battle I was having with this person made my life a lot better, and certainly made things better in the project, even if it didn't make things all better.

Over the years, I've gotten better at this practice.   When I started meditating, it started to really improve, and when I had my breakthrough, it changed a lot.  I can plot a clear trajectory, because I started meditating when I was in a leadership role in the IETF, and if I'm going to be honest about it, I really sucked in that role.   I meant well, and I tried, but I kept getting into battles I didn't want to be in, and kept doing harm.   Over the course of the two years I was in that role, I improved quite a bit, and my meditation practice had a lot to do with it, but at the end of the two years, I was replaced, because I'd sucked enough that they weren't comfortable letting me keep working on myself while doing the job.   At the time this hurt.   A lot.   Looking back, I'm glad they did it—it was the right choice.

What's changed since then is that I no longer confuse the need to communicate with the need for validation.   Both are real needs, but my meditation practice has allowed me to clearly separate them.   I now know when I am writing a response because I need validation, and I can stop myself before I send it, and figure out a way to communicate instead.

And this brings me to the topic of Coke versus Pepsi, and how to save the world.

One of the things that you might notice about political arguments is that they are really arguments about Coke versus Pepsi.   The U.S. has two major parties, but even when I discuss politics with people who share most of the same views I do, it still devolves to Coke versus Pepsi.  I wanted to write something about this here because I think it's actually an interesting problem, so I'm thinking aloud about it, not claiming that what I write here is true or correct.

But think about this: when I get into an argument with someone about politics, how likely is it that we actually discuss what we care about?   My experience is that it's not very likely at all.   What happens is that the person I'm talking to tries to figure out what tribe I'm in, and I try to figure out what tribe they are in, and then the conversation is about them trying to get me to join their tribe (or feel bad about not being in their tribe) and about me trying to get them to join my tribe (or feel bad about not being in my tribe).

In other words, I'm trying to take away their Pepsi, and they are trying to take away my Coke.

The fact is, we both have reasons for drinking cola.   Cola is satisfying a need for both of us.   We have so much in common.   And instead, there we are trying to take each others' colas away.

Of course, to me, when I try to take away your Pepsi, it's because I want to give you Coke, because Coke is way better than Pepsi.   And when you try to take away my Coke, your goal is to give me Pepsi, because Pepsi is way better than Coke.   But that's not what it feels like, is it?   It really feels like you're taking away my Papsi, and like I'm taking away your Coke.

This is not to say that there are no real disagreements in politics.   There definitely are.   And we use those disagreements to figure out what tribe we're in, but we never try to figure out why that guy is drinking Pepsi, the drink of evil overlords, whereas I'm drinking Coke, the drink of awakened bodhisattvas.

Of course there are real problems.   When the person you are talking to supports neo-nazis, that's a problem.   Maybe that's a person you can't talk to about Coke versus Pepsi.  Maybe it's hopeless.   That's okay, I guess.   But chances are that this person is saying what they are saying because they are defending an identity, not because they really believe that what they are saying is true.   And also, most of them aren't actually defending neo-nazis—they're just not doing enough to stop neo-nazis from framing the discussion.

So then there needs to be a decision.  Are you having the conversation because you want to be validated, or because you want to change the other person's mind?   Because you are hoping to influence the other person's behavior?

It's perfectly fine to want to be validated.   But if you're a Coke-drinker, you're never going to get validation about drinking Coke from a Pepsi-drinker.   So if you're in the conversation looking for validation, there's only one way to get it.   That's by invalidating the Pepsi-drinker in some way, and then getting your friends to validate what you did.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of public discourse right now is about doing this.   We create these tribal divides, and then we beat up on someone from the other tribe and get validation from people in our tribe.   This would be fine if all we needed was to feel validated, and if it didn't cause any harm.   But what we really need is change, and this kind of behavior causes real harm.   It makes it harder for us to get real change, because we can't have serious conversations between Coke-drinkers and Pepsi-drinkers, because we've burned that bridge by being utterly awful to the people who don't like our brand of Cola.

Now of course, in the case of modern politics, what those people believe is hugely problematic.   Wanting to go back to a time when women were chattel, and when black people knew their place, that's not okay.   That's not a destination I want to go to.   I'd really like to stop us moving in that direction.   And so I'm trying really hard not to seek validation when what I really need to do is communicate.