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:
- 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 “wait – can you explain what we are arguing about as a question?” forces everyone to clarify not just their position, but in the form of a question that allows more than one answer. Often two people are simply arguing about two different questions simultaneously without realizing it. To at least agree on the question, or a list of questions to discuss, creates a shared place to start from.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Why are you interested in having a discussion about it? Is the goal to explore ideas and learn, or merely to win?
- 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.