There’s an American maxim which says you shouldn’t discuss religion or politics in polite society. It’s hard not to have some sympathy with this advice, especially during the election cycle. After all, just look at how our political debates have become an emblem of all that is degenerate in our political discourse.
Even among friends, conversations about who should be our next president can quickly become divisive and alienating, while frank discussion of political disagreements rarely proves constructive and edifying.
Well, I’m here to suggest the impossible: political disagreements, when handled right, can actually be constructive and relationship-building.
If we look beyond the disorders of the present, we find that ancient psychologists and rhetoricians have actually given us a number of tools for debating political ideas in an edifying, friendly and constructive manner. These principles apply whether one is having a political discussion face to face, on social media, or in a public forum.
I’ve distilled these principles down to 5 simple steps. Learning to apply these steps in your own conversations could make the difference to whether people find your conversation enjoying and constructive or annoying and contentious.
Step #1. Don’t Insult.
The ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle both believed that dialogue about politics could bring people closer together through promoting the noble activity of friendship. In ancient Athens it was customary for men to discuss politics in the marketplace and at mealtimes. As anyone who has read The Dialogues of Plato will know, such discussion was inseparably connected with broader philosophical concerns about the world and the meaning of life.
I sometimes wonder what Plato and Aristotle would think if they could return today and observe what a dominant role the 140-character insult now plays in our public discourse. Insulting those who disagree with us not only causes our political discourse to degenerate into a shouting match, but it deflects from the actual issues we could be grappling with.
We’ve grown so used to seeing public figures insult each other that it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of subtler ways we routinely insult those who disagree with our political views, including:
- Interrupting. The reason interrupting is insulting is because it sends the message “What you have to say is not important enough for my time. I only care what I think and have to say.”
- Personal attacking. One of the most elementary mistakes in political discussion is the ad hominem. Often when we have a disagreement with someone, instead of simply complaining about the person’s viewpoint or behavior, we issue more global criticisms about someone’s entire experience as a person. Not only does this deflect from the actual issues, but it causes dialogue to degenerate into a cycle of aggression and defensiveness.
Step #2. Accurately Represent Your Opponent’s Point of View
In 2002, the psychologist Patricia Healy Evans wrote a book called Controlling People. In it she explained how a basic human instinct is to connect with others. But this instinct can misfire, resulting in disordered connections between the self and others. When our instinct to connect with others is disordered, what often happens is that we don’t know how to relate to others without being controlling. Now when psychologists talk about someone “being controlling”, they aren’t merely referring to behavior that is bossy and authoritarian; controlling behaviors can also include redefining others, subtly twisting what another person says to fit within our own categories, sublimating another person’s words and thoughts into the frameworks we can comfortably manage. In short, the controlling impulse arises from an ability to treat others as others. We do this all the time in political conversations.
For example, one of the easiest mistakes to make in political discourse is to assume you know where the other person is “coming from.” The reason it’s so easy to make this mistake is that often a person’s position on a certain issue invokes a larger ideological framework that is easily recognized, labelled and dismissed. For example, we can often tell by someone’s position on tax-law or abortion or immigration whether they are “left-wing” or “right-wing.” Because of this, instead of interacting with someone’s position on a specific political issue we often end up arguing against the entire network in which we suppose the person’s position is situated. This can lead us to miss crucial nuance and complexities that might be present in the other person’s view. After all, not everyone fits into easily identifiable boxes.
Aristotle is widely quoted as having observed that the mark of an educated mind is the ability to entertain a thought without accepting it. To entertain a viewpoint that you personally disagree with is to understand that view from the inside, on its own terms. Being able to do this will make you a more effective communicator since it enables you to actually listen to other people’s concerns instead of interacting with a caricature of their position. Before you can tell someone that their political views are wrong, you need to first be able to truly hear what they’re saying.
But how do you know whether you’ve truly listened to another person’s point of view? Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you can summarize the other person’s concern in your own words, so that the other person can say “Yes, that’s what I’m trying to say”, then that is a pretty good indication that you’re on the right track. If you can’t do this, then you need to learn to be a better listener before offering a critique. I try to make a habit whenever I am having a political discussion with someone to take a step back and try to summarize what I think the other person is trying to say. This helps the other person to know that I am really trying to listen which, in turn, helps them to be more receptive of what I might have to offer. Conversely, if I’m having discussion with someone and I feel like they are not listening, I will stop them and say “Excuse me, would you mind summarizing in your own words what you think I’m trying to say.”
This isn’t just a rhetorical trick to break down barriers. It actually gets to the heart of what makes us distinctly human. Alone among the beasts, human beings have the capacity to imaginatively relate to experiences and thoughts far removed from our own. Being able to extend our minds and emotions into beliefs and experiences different from our own is the foundation for empathy, creativity, connection, wisdom, and planning for the future. It’s also the foundation for effective political debate.
Step #3. Recognize that the Conclusion is Only as Good as the premises. In Jack London’s novel Sea Wolf, the narrator tells of witnessing a debate on board ship on whether a seal pup could swim or not swim at birth. “Childish and immaterial as the topic was,” he wrote “the quality of their reasoning was still more childish and immaterial. In truth, there was very little reasoning or none at all. Their method was one of assertion, assumption, and denunciation.” This might be an equally apt description of how many people behave in political discussions today, where even the semblance of rationality is abandoned in order to make space for the endless repetition of opinion.
When disputing with someone, it’s easy to become so focused on the conclusion we disagree with that we don’t even seek to penetrate the reasons that have led the person to that conclusion in the first place. To understand what this looks like in practice, let’s take the following basic argument as an example:
All Men Are Mortal
Socrates is a Man
Therefore, Socrates is Mortal
These types of arguments, with two premises and a conclusion, are known as syllogisms. We say that this argument is valid when the conclusion follows logically from the premises. That is to say, if the premises are true then the conclusion necessarily follows. But are the premises actually true? In the case of the above argument, both the premises are true: all men are indeed mortal, and Socrates was indeed a man. It is possible, however, to make an argument that is structurally valid (that is, where the conclusion follows from the premises) but the premises are still false. Here would be an example:
All Men Are Trees
Socrates is a Man
Therefore, Socrates is a Tree
Notice that the conclusion follows logically from the premises even though the premises are false. In order for an argument to work, it must be valid and it must contain true premises. When an argument is both true and valid, we say the argument is sound.
Most of the informal political debates we engage in don’t follow the same strict structure as the above syllogisms. In normal every day discussions, the conclusion or premises are sometimes implied. However, this doesn’t change the fact that all proper arguments are made up of conclusions and premises that purport to support those conclusions. And again, if the premises are true and if the conclusion follows logically from those premises, then the argument is sound.
Now here’s the important point. If you are having an argument with someone about a political issue, it isn’t good enough to simply repeat your own conclusion or dispute the other person’s conclusion. Proper argumentation involves engaging with your opponents’ premises and showing either that they are false, or that the premises don’t support the conclusion. That may sound formal and intense, but it actually helps to build relationships because it gives the message that the other person’s thought-processes are legitimate enough to engage with. What often tends to happen, however, is that all we can hear is the part we disagree with. Instead of taking a step back to review how the other person reached his or her conclusion, we focus only on the conclusion itself.
If I am having a political discussion with someone and the other person is so focused on the conclusion they disagree with that they aren’t willing to engage with the premises that have led me to that conclusion in the first place, that sends the message “I am not interested in why you’ve reached this conclusion, I am only interested in the conclusion that I disagree with.” Such an approach is alienating to friends because it sends the message (perhaps unintentionally) “I am not willing to listen.”
Step #4. Find points of agreement. Even when you strongly disagree with someone’s position on a political issue, you can usually find something in their views to be sympathetic about. It’s a good rule of thumb to try to find areas of commonality before jumping into the areas of disagreement.
Because political beliefs are connected to deep-seated values, when someone’s position is threatened they tend to see it as a threat against themselves and their self-image. By starting with areas of agreement, you help the other person to feel safe. Affirming areas where the other person has got it right unconsciously affirms the other person’s self-worth, which in turn makes it more likely that he or she will want to listen to what you have to say. In fact, researchers have found that exercises designed to increase a person’s self-worth made them more open to compromising their position on key issues. Eric Horowitz explained how this works in his article ‘Want to Win a Political Debate? Try Making a Weaker Argument‘:
One line of research has found that self-affirmation — a mental exercise that increases feelings of self-worth — makes people more willing to accept threatening information. The idea is that by raising or “affirming” your self-worth, you can then encounter things that lower your self-worth without a net decrease. The affirmation and the threat effectively cancel each other out, and a positive image is maintained.
A 2006 study led by Geoff Cohen, for example, found that when pro-choice people had their partisan identities made salient, affirmation made them more likely to compromise and make concessions on abortion restrictions. Similarly, a study by Joshua Correll found that affirmation led people to process threatening political arguments in a less biased way. More recently, research by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler (PDF) found that self-affirmation made people who supported withdrawing from Iraq more likely to agree that the Iraq troop surge of 2007 saved lives, and made strong Republicans more likely to agree that climate change is real. The takeaway from all three studies is that information is more likely to have the desired effect if, on net, it doesn’t lower a person’s self-worth.
Step #5. Acknowledge that things are not always black and white. Socrates once said that “True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.” The wisest and most learned people in life are usually the quickest to admit how much they don’t know. Intellectual humility also involves recognizing that most questions in life are not slam-dunk issues. Even with we feel strongly about an issue, there is often something we can learn from those who think differently. Sometimes we can do this by listening to the issues behind the issue, the underlying concern that animates specific positions we don’t agree with. Recognizing that there might be some legitimacy to opposing viewpoints will enable you to discuss politics with your friends without alienating them.