Van Jones Reveals The Messy Truth by Losing His Cool

Before I go any further, I have to say that I really appreciate what Van Jones has done with his 3-part series called "The Messy Truth". To me, his first episode really hit the mark on one problem, and solution, with our current social climate. In it, he is able to talk to an entire family of Trump supporters as an admitted Clinton supporter and still maintain an air of mutual respect.

In the third episode, which could have been the best, he assembles a larger group of people, with several voters backing each of the candidates, including Bernie Sanders and 3rd-party candidates. There, he faces his "toughest challenge yet: a young Trump supporter who won’t back down."

Van Jones makes a successful effort to avoid turning the gathering into a shit storm. He does so by showing us one way to make friends in a contentious situation: focus on their positive traits, compliment them, and put them at ease. Unfortunately, in contrast to the first episode, I think he missed the main point. In the end, he had a room full of voters with very different opinions, but only the contentious one was heard, while Van Jones avoided the main subject. This is how we make nice, but not how we learn to respect one another.

Brief as it was, a much more revealing moment comes in the early moments of the video. The young Trump supporter (Jason) has just rattled off a list of complaints about Hillary Clinton and her campaign, when Van Jones calls for a pause:

Van Jones: I could sit here and lay out a whole bunch of crimes against your guy. This is… this is what America wants us to do now. You're supposed to say, 'Hillary sucks! Hillary sucks! Hillary sucks!', and I'm supposed to say Donald Trump ripped off all his contractors, Donald Trump sexually assaulted women…blah blah blah…

Jason: Which was debunked.

Van Jones: That's not… he admitted it himself!

Jason: (rolls his eyes)

This to me is the real "messy truth." Van Jones, the man who has set up this whole scenario to show how to argue politely, lost his cool. The truth is, it is damned hard to hear people say things you disagree with without having an emotional reaction.

In the first episode, he did an excellent job of sticking to his guns, while still showing it's ok to disagree. But in this one, he deflects and changes the focus of the discussion, which is where I think he misses the point. We HAVE to be able to talk about the hard things, the infuriating things, without hating one another.

I don't blame him. There are several reasons this is hard to do, and emotion is only one of them. The machine gun approach of argumentation creates another. Van Jones was only able to hear about 3 or 4 before he had to put up a hand and say "whoah!" The more one is forced to listen without a response, the harder it is to even keep track of the discussion, and the more the anguish builds up. This is one way polite discussions can turn into an exercise in frustration and anger.

But there is an even more serious problem that I encounter when arguing with another person. It's the moment when I realize the futility of the discussion, the impossibility of actually making my point. This is apparent in the moment that Van Jones brings up the sexual assault accusations. To him, the fact that Trump is guilty of sexual assault is a done deal. To Jason, Trump's innocence is a proven fact. The result is a slightly hysterical raised voice, and eye rolling. You can see in that moment than Van Jones has taken a step away from, and not towards, mutual respect.

I don't blame him one bit. The truth is, in a real-time conversation, there is no time to get to the bottom of an issue like that. The question of whether or not Trump is guilty of sexual assault, as simple as it sounds, is rolled up into many pieces of information:

  • Trump has made it a matter of habit to personally insult any woman that disagrees with him using terms that he would never think to use for a man, showing a general tendency of misogyny
  • Trump was caught on tape bragging that he has no problem grabbing women by the p*ssy whether they want it or not.
  • Trump claims it was just "locker room talk"
  • When asked point blank if he had committed those acts during the 3rd debate, he deflected several times before saying a quick "no"
  • Since then at least 10 women have come forward saying that he sexually harassed or assaulted them
  • In an amazing twist of irony, after bringing 4 women that accused Bill Clinton of similar acts to the second debate, and criticizing Hillary Clinton for calling them liars, Trump has accused all 10 of those women of lying
  • One woman has accused Donald Trump of raping her when she was 13 years old. The woman has alternately raised the accusation and dropped the case repeated times.

All these points are rolled up into the two very differing beliefs in the heads of Jason and Van Jones. To Jason, not a single point has been proven against Trump, and therefore the whole thing has been "debunked." To Van Jones, the recording is a proven admission from Trump that he commits these acts, and the remaining preponderance of evidence contributes to the validity of that fact.

This is the despair in trying to debate anything head-to-head in real time. There is just SO MUCH INFORMATION that needs to be discussed, line for line, before you can be satisfied you have done your best. And at that point, you have totally lost the focus of the rest of the debate.

Given the impossible task, Van Jones was briefly upset, but then chose to deflect. But the right approach, if we are to gain a better understanding, would have been to accept the disagreements and continue with the discussion. "Jason, I know you believe that Trump did not do the things he said. I believe he did. So, we disagree."

The same could be done with the questions of Hillary Clinton being a liar, Obamacare, Trump's business activity, and so on. The result of the debate should have been "Look, you believe Hillary Clinton is corrupt, hates your part of America, and is part of the machine that is destroying the country. I can see why you can't vote for a person like that. I believe Trump is a bigot and a misogynist, a narcissist and a liar who promotes hate with his own personal gain in mind. I hope you see why I can't vote for him. Both of us want the best for all Americans. We are both good people at heart. The rest is a question of which one we believe."

Going Deeper

The solution above still poses a problem: it means our debates are only superficial representations of the mountains of information we have absorbed and processed. We can only skim the surface.

It would be nice if there were some place we could point to, perhaps online, that already has all that information rolled up for us, and vetted for the amount of evidence backing it up. Unfortunately, the way things stand on the internet today, there are MANY sources, each with its own focus and level of believability. Have you ever paused a conversation to look something up in Wikipedia before moving on? That's fine for a quick reference, but no help on a contentious subject.

Right now I'm working on a project that I hope will change that. For now, I'm calling it the Wikipedia for debates, and my hope is that it will make this possible. It should serve as something of a "crib sheet" when discussing with other people so you can mention a point, and not have to spend the rest of your time trying to back it up. I do not believe that it will ever bring us to an absolute truth, but I do hope that it will help us to cut through the questions and get to understanding what each person actually values and believes.

Until then, we have to work on our patience and our restraint to keep a level head, avoid insults and give the other person the benefit of the doubt. It's all we can do to argue and still maintain respect. That to me is the messy truth.

Founder of The Canonical Debate Lab

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store