Who Playing Who?

by Kira Hudson Banks
Assistant Professor of Psychology, Illinois Wesleyan University

Latest Obama, McCain Exchange on Race a Demonstration of ‘Conversation Killers 101’

By Kira Hudson Banks, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University

I was struck by the political commentary asserting Obama made a huge mistake in accusing McCain of using his “risky traits” to instill fear.

I think we could pretty much agree that there are numerous ways to disrupt or halt conversation. For some it might be bringing up religion or politics in casual conversation. In racial dialogues a surefire way to shut someone down is to accuse them of being racist. End of conversation. You win. They lose. We all know it is more complicated, but that’s the long and short of it in our society. We rarely stop to analyze the situation. We simply pick sides and talk past each other. It’s kind of like throwing a grenade and trusting it will do major damage — no need to worry about the details. It’s a really dirty way to fight — especially when the accusations are false and are simply used to smear the reputation of another. When that is the case, we’re being passive-aggressive. We’re trying to appear as if we’re not being confrontational, yet we are being just that. It’s subtle, might be accomplished through omission rather than commission, but there is no mistaking it. Well, sometimes there is.

I believe McCain succeeded in being similarly passive aggressive today while hurling the assertion that Obama is “playing the race card.” He did it in two ways. The first way he accomplished it was by never coming out and saying it directly. He agreed with a reporter’s assertion that Obama was playing the race card, called it “unfortunate,” and refused to comment further. So, we can’t really claim that he said it, right? I think his approach was to throw out the grenade and see how much damage it would do. By refusing to engage, he didn’t give us any direction, any understanding of how he came to the opinion, or what evidence he gleaned and weighed.

The other way in which he succeeded was by having what little detail there was about his position come from others who were extremely vague. Members of his campaign called Obama’s comments divisive, shameful, wrong, and from the bottom of the deck. Oh, now I understand.

I don’t think McCain’s accusation of Obama playing the race card without being willing to engage in details of why he feels this way is any more defensible than someone calling another person racist and upon being asked why saying “because.” These are loaded accusations. To not discuss the nuances, in my opinion, leaves McCain playing the race card just as much as he accuses Obama of doing so. By not delving further, we don’t know what he thinks. If people agree with him, they can simply insert their own reasons. We are left unable to critically analyze, and maybe even accept, his argument. He’s killed the conversation before it’s even started. He’s hoping we declare him the winner (in this round and the ones to follow).

Obama simply stated observations: his name is not mainstream, he is very different from the Presidents on the dollar bills- namely with relation to race. Rather than acknowledge that these reflections are in line with the reality of the circumstances, McCain interpreted them as “playing the race card.” At least that is what I can surmise since he refuses to engage in conversation.

Personally, I don’t think it’s clear who has won this round, but I do know that we have a new way, without explanation, to bring conversations to a halt. Add “You’re playing the race card” to the list of conversation killers 101.

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