How to discuss politics with friends, Version 2.0

My good friends and I like to discuss big questions. Two friends and I realized we avoided topics, mostly political, for being too polarizing. But we discussed this, and came up with a set of rules for politics with friends and family, version 1. Over time we revised it and improved it, and I’m pleased to present version 2 below:

  1. What is the actual question being discussed? We often stumble into political discussions, seeded by one fact or recent news. As the discussion gets heated it’s because both people have silently brought different perspectives, histories and stories with them for interpreting the recent news. Periodically you need to stop and re-establish what the specific question being discussed is. It sounds silly, but asking “what are we arguing about?” forces everyone to more clearly state their position, or what they think is the core point of disagreement, which can only elevate the quality of discourse. Often two people are simply arguing about two different questions at the same time and shifting to one question at a time always goes better. An easy exercise that everyone can agree on is to simply make a list of the questions that have already come up in conversation, as well as new ones that have yet to be asked.
  2. What do you actually know? We hear factoids third hand and draw large conclusions supporting our pet theories. We rarely read the studies mentioned in the news, or examine the sources of articles we read online as the concept of confirmation bias, where we cherry pick facts we like and call it research, is a human failing. This means we rarely have the depth of understanding to match our emotions. Poking at our sources and recognizing how many assumptions are being made, or both sides, disarms conversations. It’s easy to misconstrue facts or manipulate data and having volumes of it means nothing, as both sides have ample ammunition.
  3. Can you effectively argue the opposing point-of-view? We forget that an argument is just a tool. In any complex issue, there are valid points on all sides. If you can’t effectively argue the other side’s point of view, you can’t claim to have seriously considered your own position, as you’ve never truly evaluated any alternative (or haven’t done it in years). Switching sides in a debate is a fantastic exercise: it forces you to use more intelligence and critical thinking than defending the same view year after year ever could.
  4. What would convince you that you are wrong? If you can’t imagine any possible way to have a different opinion, then your imagination is limited, which likely makes you boring to talk with. If you can’t imagine the world being any other way, no matter how slim the possibility, then you are stuck in your own beliefs. You deny yourself the chance to have a new opinion. Worse, you likely confuse stroking your old well worn thoughts with the act of thinking up new ones.
  5. Why do you believe what you believe? We assume we have great reasons for our opinions. This sometimes is not true. Maybe you believe what you believe because your parents did? That’s not a logical basis for believing anything, as it doesn’t involve any of your own thinking. It’s ok to believe in it anyway, but understanding why you believe will change the way you talk/defend/promote those beliefs.
  6. Why are you interested in having a discussion about it? Is the goal to explore ideas and learn, or merely to win?
  7. What are you going to do about it? Assuming you’re right, and passionate about your views, why do you think discussing it with a friend will change anything? There are many ways to support political causes and campaigns, and investing your energy there will likely be more satisfying and have more of an impact. If you’re not willing to put your own energy behind something you claim to believe in, why should anyone else take your ideas seriously? We pretend so much is at stake in our position, but most of the time we don’t care enough to take action. Yelling at a friend is a very unproductive way to support your own beliefs.

[Thanks to Royal Winchester and Rob Lefferts who contributed to this list]

800px-Politics

11 Responses to “How to discuss politics with friends, Version 2.0”

  1. M.L.Gupta

    Politics should be the last thing to discuss with friends, but if you must, better ignite a discussion politely and play a better listener than a speaker.If friends have sound knowledge of the subject of discussion rather than opinion only, you stand to gain by the exchange.A writer is always curious to know more from more people to enrich his own fund of information and also test his views against those of others. Nothing has been told finally. So everyone has enough space to say his/her say.
    M.L.Gupta

    Reply
    1. Citizen Patriot

      Discussing politics and religion have always been said to be off limits while on dates and with friends but they actually need to be discussed more often. Avoiding these issues are partly to blame for the world being in such a mess.

      Reply
  2. Jason cleveland

    I can usually see both sides when I remember to look. Sometimes there is so much information
    I become overwhelmed and exahausted from research. And I know I don’t always see 100% both sides, I do involve myself probably in a more nonproductive way than intended, my aim is not to compete, but to challenge and mostly change for the better of human kind through peace and selflesness. I will admit I don’t know how or where to begin. I wish I had the tools to begin and the time to learn them.

    Reply
  3. moritheil

    Yeah, this looks familiar. (1) is what is called a Topicality violation. People not trained in speech or argumentation (and even those who are, if they’re not watching themselves) are generally going to ramble off topic in any discussion of sufficient length.

    (2) is the difference between fact, hearsay, and opinion. Journalists learn that.

    (3) is the idea that an argument is not the person arguing it. Given attitudes towards politics, I’d say that over 70% of adults actually haven’t learned that.

    (4)-(6) are kind of theological, in the sense that they get into the personal cosmology that most people leave unexamined.

    (7) is usually “get mad and post on the Internet.” Ah, clicktivism.

    Reply
  4. Faruk Ateş

    ‘Yelling at a friend is a very unproductive way to support your own beliefs.”

    Agreed, but it is understandable as we all want to surround ourselves with people who share our values to a reasonable degree. I think the nuance here is that you should not get too heated about a debate with your friends unless the topic of debate affects your life in a very serious manner. In which case, highlight _that_ in the debate. If it’s personal, make sure the other person knows this is personal, and not (just) some intellectual exercise.

    Reply
    1. Scott

      The ultimate value in a friend is someone who accepts differences as well as celebrates connections. It shouldn’t be too hard for everyone involved to see the futility of yelling, even if sometimes their passions get the better of them.

      Reply
      1. Faruk Ateş

        Agreed, but there are certain political issues wherein that’s understandable. Legislation that would effectively kill women with problematic pregnancies, for instance; that’s real people’s lives on the line, who didn’t have a choice in the matter. It’s hard _not_ to get intensely emotional about that, all the more so if it could be your own life next.

        Reply

Pingbacks

Leave a Reply

* Required