Folks who fret that the conversation around the dinner table this Thanksgiving will devolve into a political grudge match could take a suggestion from Angel Eduardo. A writer, musician, photographer and artist, he spends at least as much time thinking about how people engage with each other as he does thinking about how to engage his own audiences. He views each medium he works in as a form of storytelling. “It’s all me trying to communicate something,” he says.

Eduardo, 37, is director of messaging and editorial at the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism, a nonpartisan foundation known as FAIR. He also blogs for the Center for Inquiry and sometimes writes perspectives for Newsweek. As a son of Dominican immigrants, he speaks both English and Spanish natively, and grew up navigating different perspectives on the world.

That may have helped him to develop an idea he calls “star-manning” — a rhetorical method whose name riffs off a pair of better-known alternatives. On one hand, a straw man argument is a logical fallacy that attacks a misrepresented form of the opposing position to ensure an easy victory. A steel man argument takes the opposite approach, highlighting the strongest possible version of the opposition to make one’s victory unassailable. But star-manning takes that a step further, engaging with not only the most charitable version of an argument, but also the best view of the person behind it.

His premise is that most of us have lots in common, including good intentions and shared desires. But beliefs are forged through individual experience and everyone’s journey is different, so people arrive at their views by different routes that can be understood with a little empathy. Disagreement is not a sign that one person is right and the other is either a monster or a fool. Star-manning is intended to help you win the dinner table argument but keep the relationship. 

As an artist, Eduardo has designed book covers and shown his photography in galleries, building off a Master of Fine Arts degree from City University of New York’s Hunter College. He even sings and plays guitar — songs by his former funk rock band Blue Food can be streamed on the usual platforms. 

Deseret Magazine talked to Eduardo about building up, rather than tearing down. He says he’s trying to pay it forward.

Deseret Magazine: What drew you to FAIR?

Angel Eduardo: Our mission is to advance civil rights and liberties for all Americans and to promote a common culture based on three principles we call fairness, understanding and humanity. We also have what we call our principles of peaceful change, based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles of nonviolence. It’s about bridge building, moral courage and compassion. It’s about love over hate, and trust and justice. All of those things deeply resonate with me. If I may be so bold, I feel like I am a walking version of FAIR in that these are my personal aspirations, my principles and my perspective on life and on how to engage with others. So it was a perfect fit. 

DM: As you talk about these principles, what’s the hardest thing to teach kids?

AE: All children are pro-human. There are always going to be problem kids, but kids are naturally social. It’s not until we teach them these arbitrary divisions that they start to use them.

These constructs that worry us as grown-ups, what we consider to be fundamental divides between us, like race, those things have to be taught to children. And we don’t have to teach them. We should teach them that it happens in some age-appropriate way: “Hey, this is the way that the world is currently functioning. This is the way that people view one another. These are the ways that human interactions get complicated.” But not in a way that subsumes them in it. They should understand it the same way that we see Greek mythology. You know, this is what people thought. These are the stories; it’s important for you to understand them. But we’re not telling you that you need to sacrifice goats to Apollo. 

Disagreement is not a sign that one person is right and the other is either a monster or a fool.

DM: Tell us more about star-manning. Can it heal existing divides?

AE: It’s my fancy term for something that came naturally to me, and which I see lacking in our discourse, which is having a little bit of humility and accepting that you don’t fully understand a situation or an argument or a person because things are complicated and communication is hard.

Even though you may disagree with someone’s ideas, or proposals or perspective, they’re still human beings. And they are fundamentally wired in the same way that you are. Just as you feel strongly about your convictions and opinions and political and ideological beliefs, they feel the same about theirs.

That conflict doesn’t mean that they’re evil, they’re just people who had different upbringings, experiences, interactions with others, different friendships than you did, and that’s why they ended up where they did, and you ended up where you did. Star-manning is a rhetorical tool that tries to reinstate that fundamental human connection. And it’s a way of making it explicit, so that you can actually hear the argument that the other person is making, and you can disagree with it more effectively if appropriate, because you understand not just the argument, but the arguer. Most people most of the time are doing what they believe is fair, good and just, or at the very least justifiable, given their righteous end. And the key is trying to pinpoint what those righteous ends are. It’s like looking at somebody’s scrap paper, rather than just their answer. If you can see how they got there, that’s more informative than just saying their answer is wrong.

DM: Is the goal to stop arguments?

AE: It does not mean accepting things to be true that you do not believe are true. It does not mean accepting things as good that you do not believe are good. It only means understanding what those things are and where people are coming from in espousing them. So it doesn’t get rid of arguing at all. In fact, it actually increases arguments and both the capacity for and the necessity of arguing. It just does it in a way that is constructive and productive rather than hostile. 

DM: You wrote that we should fight for what we believe in, but not make monsters of those who disagree. Are we creating monsters?

AE: Absolutely. That’s where this idea came from — noticing that people are incapable of steel-manning, because they’ve convinced themselves that their opponents are beneath contempt. Beneath dignity or compassion. As a result, they’re not only getting the arguments wrong, but they’re getting the people wrong. Someone who voted differently than you in the last election is not necessarily an evil person. They have their reasons.

You’ve been wrong before. I’m sure there are plenty of people who think that what you believe now is ridiculous. How should they treat you? The golden rule is instructive here. Imagine someone shutting you down and saying, “No, you’re a horrible human being, you’re a pathetic excuse for a person, and I’m not going to listen to you. I’m just going to tear you down.” We should try not to do that to other people. 

DM: That sounds pretty idealistic. Can it work in the real world?

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AE: A lot of the things that I advocate for get similar responses from people: “Oh, that would be nice. But here in the real world, we have to deal with XYZ.” What they’re saying is that’s nice, but it’s unrealistic. I reject that. Idealism gets confused with naivete. The caricature of an idealist is a belief that everything’s going to be great. That’s silly. An idealist is somebody who has certain principles and refuses to concede their goals to the reality of the present, or even the past. Just because it’s been this way for this long doesn’t mean it can’t change. 

DM: Any last word?

AE: I’m just trying the best I can to do good and to be good. And we should recognize that everyone else is doing that in their own way as well. So: Be kind. We’re all first drafts.  

This story appears in the November issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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