"So, what are your thoughts on politics?"
Yikes. We've all heard that question before, and each time it doesn't fail to make out skin crawl and our pulse quicken. This is the case for most people because typically any conversation following this prompt ends in shouting and hurt feelings. Even in the rare cases when these conversations don't end horribly, there always seems to be a general "yucky" feeling inside, almost like it's a dirty subject to talk about politics. However, I'm here today to disclose the previously unknown method to have a nice political conversation.
I can already hear your anguished cries, saying, "But Benny! A civil political conversation is impossible!" Well, dear reader, if you just follow these steps, I ensure that the next political conversation you have will turn out decent at the least. So save your questions until the end and listen up!
1. Don't Pick A Side
I know, this is sort of counter intuitive when it comes to actually presenting your ideas/opinions in a political conversation, but doing this prevents your political discussion from becoming a political debate. When people pick a side, it automatically makes them biased towards their own side, which can prevent them from fully understanding the arguments of the other side. Since most people would agree that an open mind and understanding help a political conversation flow, the very act of dividing those involved immediately prevents true open mindedness.
In addition, when people I've asked on this subject discuss why they think politics gets so heated, it's because people become too divided, forcing themselves into an "us vs. them" discussion. So the solution to this is simple: if you don't like divided conversation, don't pick a side. Note that you do not have to "abandon" your own beliefs for this, just be open to having your views challenged, and possibly challenging your own views yourself.
2. Admit That Everyone Has Faults
It's been said a lot, but it's still very true: no one is perfect. There isn't a single politician that has done nothing but good in his or her entire career. What we forget is that politicians are also humans, susceptible to error just as much as we regular people are. In fact, there are a lot more temptations that constantly surround politicians; things like money, bribery, or just something like a change of heart. And yes, politicians are allowed to change their minds.
No one likes to talk to someone else who is incapable of facing the fact that their favorite politician has faults. I've spoken with some of the biggest Obama supporters I know and even they can admit that there are one or two things they disagree with about Obama. When we put these politicians on pedestals and claim they can do no wrong, it makes it all that much harder to be open to criticism. Politicians are only human, and treating them like gods only makes them seem foreign to us.
3. Only Use Words If You Know What They Mean
The other week I spoke with a very anti-Trump classmate of mine who proceeded to call him a "cruel, hateful, benevolent man." This made me scratch my head, naturally, because "benevolent" does not fit with the other two words this person used. Perhaps this person meant to say "malevolent," which means to have the will to do evil unto others, instead of "benevolent," which means to show unconditional love to someone/something. And that's what made me include this step in the list. As soon as someone incorrectly uses words that sound big and smart for the sake of sounding big and smart, it makes others less likely to take their argument seriously.
This brings up the greater point that a large vocabulary is not necessary to talk about politics. It's actually fairly simple: as long as you use words that are clear to others that properly convey your intentions, the discussion will be just fine. You don't have to carry around your pocket thesaurus like a jerk, just use the right words for your situation. A key to having a peaceful resolve to a political discussion is making sure that everyone that participated walks away with a clear understanding of what was said by everyone else, and knowing how each person feels/thinks towards the previously discussed topics. It's hard to know how someone feels about a topic when they can't properly convey their thoughts because they're too distracted by trying to use big fancy words, when really they come off as gratuitous.
4. Don't Use Any "Attacking" Words
Be aware that my article's title is how to have a "civil" conversation about politics, and that cannot be achieved whatsoever when someone uses hurtful words to attack someone else's opinions. Sharing ideas is a lot easier for everyone in a discussion when they feel like they can freely share their opinions without getting shouted at because of them. Honestly, who wants to express their thoughts on abortion when one person in the corner keeps screaming, "PEOPLE WHO GET ABORTIONS ARE MURDERERS!" I sure wouldn't. Keep in mind that everyone gets an opinion (more on that later) but the way you present that can either help or hinder the discussion. Using violent or potentially hurtful words makes it less likely that people will share their opinions, and it can also prevent others from having sympathy for your opinions.
Ultimately, using attacking words is just childish. Come on, we're all adults here. Hopefully we've all learned how to properly talk without shouting at each other. Conversations can go one of typically two ways: constructively or destructively. By avoiding attacking others for their beliefs and opinions, conversations end constructively with new knowledge. If it's destructive, people walk away feeling hurt and less likely to talk about politics in the future.
5. Know What You're Talking About
Similar to the case made with using words that you actually understand, the topics you hold dear to your heart should also be ones you fully understand and have hopefully done some research on them. You do not have to be an LGBTQ individual to talk about LGBTQ issues, but you do need to know the complexity of those situations. The same goes with every topic that you plan to discuss. Providing the fact that you have done your research and can properly educate others about what you're saying shows everyone that you are a reliable source of information. For example, if you think women shouldn't be allowed to get an IUD, you should probably know what an IUD is and how it works, more than just saying, "It's birth control so that makes it wrong." Along with this comes knowing general facts and statistics. For example, if the only reason you think women get abortions is because of rape, you should know that around 0.1-0.6% of abortions are because of rape. See? Just listing facts with actual research behind them make opinions seem well-though out and easier to understand.
What you do not want to do is constantly berate someone for facts behind their opinions when you cannot provide facts for your own. And no, strongly worded opinions are not factual in the slightest. That's not really how it works. Just be sure to always present your facts with a studious and supported argument to avoid spreading an idea that could be false or have false data behind it.
6. Avoid Generalizations
I have broken this rule in past discussions, I must admit. Generalizations are very easy to make and come with large consequences. A very common mistake in conversation can occur, for example, when someone wants to express displeasure with a specific Republican politician and comes off sounding like they're expressing displeasure with the entire Republican party. Like everyone says, there's an exception to every rule, which makes hating an entire party or group of people pretty irrational. This hardly ever anyone's intentions, coming off as hating an entire group. This usually happens because someone didn't use just the right words, which altered the inflection from what you actually meant.
This one might be particularly hard for some if you've already found yourself a victim of this habit, myself included. The key to avoid generalizations is to make it very clear who you're referring to. You can have a problem with Al Franken without hating Democrats, or you can have problems with George W. Bush without hating Republicans. Whenever these kinds of things happen, usually on accident, others participating in the conversation will assume that you're the kind of person who views a group of individuals as one-thinking mind, thereby erasing individual thought within a group. Always remember that groups are made of individuals, and just because they tend to have a typical pattern thought, it does not always apply to each individual.
7. Include Diverse Points-Of-View
Other than #6, this is a very easy pitfall to get trapped in. Most of the time, we can't help what people we're surrounded by on a daily basis. Whenever I talk about politics with others, I tend to find myself in a group where we more or less share the same views on almost every subject. It also tends to be the same age, which is college-aged kids. The majority of my usual circle is mostly white, with an average of maybe two or three non-white classmates. The same could be said for almost any group of people that have political discussions. There's no shocking reason as to why we do this. When talking about a potentially volatile subject like politics, it's nice to have it in a group of like-minded people where things won't get too extreme for anyone's liking. Even though this is comfortable, political discussions are hardly anything but.
In order to have a truly productive talk about politics, new ideas need to be introduced with solid reasoning behind them so that other people have the opportunity to assimilate new ideas into their own beliefs. This cannot be achieved by having a discussion with a bunch of yes-men. People learn little to nothing new about different political views when everyone shares them all. I'm not saying that your typical group of liberal-minded friends needs to include a white supremacist or anything of that caliber to be productive, just be sure that there's someone with a belief contrary to yours. Going on the point about mixed races/ethnicities, these are also very important to have. Just like having a large number of people on the same end of the political spectrum lacks efficiency, so does having your group consist of only one "type" of people. Try your best to integrate different races, ethnicities, and people of all genders/sexualities to contribute to your conversation! People coming from all these different groups have all had different life experiences, more than you would assume, so having their beliefs can add different perspectives that your own might have been lacking. For example, as a young teen myself and just learning that I get an opinion on politics, I would only really talk about politics with my one or two white, male friends. It wasn't until I began talking with women like my sister, mother, and female friends at school that I could begin learning about the wide range of different views that I adopted into my own. So remember, diversity is beautiful and always a necessity.
8. No "I'm Right and You're Wrong" Statements
At times, it seems the worst thing to have in a political conversation is the one person who conveys their opinions in the most condescending way possible. Undoubtedly we've all had a conversation with someone who was so stubborn in their opinions that the way they conveyed those thoughts seemed a lot less conversational and a lot more, "I'm right, you're wrong, and here's why." This is something that everyone should avoid doing in a political conversation. Like I mentioned earlier, this is a conversation, not a competition.
When we really think about it, political discussions are never really held for the purpose of converting someone else to your own beliefs. Instead, political conversations occur because we want to extend our beliefs to someone else and have them be clearly understood and respected. When going into a political talk, your intention should never be to tell people they're wrong. Your purpose should be to exchange opinions to gain a deeper meaning of how other people think and perceive the world. A very common problem I hear most people talk about from political conversations that went awry was that some other person refused to try and understand where other people were coming from in conversation, and instead focused on trying to prove why their opinions were right over someone else's. A lot of heated tension in politics stems from this reason: by focusing on trying to prove our own opinions right and other's wrong, we can never truly understand why someone thinks the way they do. So just go into every discussion you have with an open mind and avoid talking down to people, because chances are you wouldn't want to be talked-down to either.
9. Be Mature
I know, this one seems like a no-brainer, but it's actually a pretty big problem. A lot of what this step has to say correlates with what is said in step eight, but I'll just go ahead and list off some things you should always follow:
1. Don't be smug. No one likes to talk to someone who appears to feel superior to someone else.
2. No shouting. As soon as you shout, you've lost control of the conversation.
3. Don't laugh at someone else's opinion. That's just rude.
4. Never start a sentence with the word "technically." Just don't.
5. Don't interrupt people. I know, I bet that thing you want to say is really important, but it can wait.
6. Be respectful.
Substep 6 is pretty much the golden rule of any conversation. No one is going to even want to contribute to a conversation if everyone is just being rude to each other. Also, most of us are adults now, so act like one.
10. Everyone Has the Right to Their Opinion
This step is probably the most annoying step to always have to follow, but it's pretty much Golden Rule #2 of political talks. Now, I understand that there is a hazy line between opinions that are OK to have, and some that are not (more on that in a later article), but let's go ahead and assume that for the most part, everyone in your discussion has decent opinions, they just are different than yours. Quickly referring back to step eight, no one wants to have others berate them by calling their opinions "wrong." Politics is one big bubble of opinions, and none of them are actually right, they're all just really different. Some opinions are believed by more people, some are the minority opinion. Either way, every opinion has the right to be heard in a discussion. It's a sign of respect (note Step 9, Substep 6) that everyone will appreciate.
And I get it, it's incredibly hard to participate in a discussion where there's one or more people that share an opinion that makes your skin crawl, but that doesn't matter. Unless someone made you the Conversation God, you do not get to decide which opinions you let be said and which ones must go unheard. That is something we as humans like doing, and for a natural reason. We hear opinions that differ from ours or make us sick to our stomachs, so we just avoid them all together. However, that doesn't make those other opinions magically disappear. Yes, those opinions still exist and ignoring them doesn't make them go away forever. Instead of ignoring them, welcome the adversity and deal with it head on. Yes, it is very hard to listen to opinions that you hate, but it's for your own good. As I mentioned earlier, we gain nothing from surrounding ourselves with like-minded people. It is only when we show others respect and listen to their opinions that we can truly start to learn.
11. Cite Your References!
Did you notice that in step five I cited my fact about abortion rates? Yay me!
In all seriousness, when you mention something you believe to be a "fact," it's extremely helpful to know where you heard/read the fact. Too many times have I been discussing with others and they tell me some outlandish "fact" they hold near and dear to their heart and is the soul of their beliefs, but they then fail to tell me exactly where they heard this fact. This occurrence is extremely frequent and has very dangerous effects. By not citing our resources, we foster the idea that stating opinions as facts without real citation is something to be allowed, which it really isn't.
Now, do you have to be an encyclopedia of sources? Of course not. There exists different sets of facts that merit actual citation over others. Most facts that are shared are just plain common knowledge or common sense. For the times when you list specific facts (re, the abortion fact) it's fairly important to cite your facts. It's important to ensure that your sources are reliable, thereby strengthening your own reliability in conversation. Be careful not to spend all your time harshly criticizing others for their sources when you cannot provide your own. No one likes a hypocrite!
12. Know When Enough is Enough
At times a very displeasuring occurrence in political conversation happens when things get too heated for someone else's liking. This can make others feel uncomfortable or offended, which should never be an intended outcome of a political discussion. Going back to that sub-step 9.6, we should always be respectful of other people in the conversation and avoid targeting or belittlement.
With most discussions, they have a tendency to naturally flow into another topic once the topic prior has come to a natural end. However, it can be hard for this to occur when a political debate gets too heated. A few people may feel that the conversation is getting too intense, while others may be too invested in their emotions to realize this. If this every happens, you have every right to express your displeasure. Whether you want the topic to change, or if you want everyone to just take a breather, it's far better than letting the conversation get worse. An aspect of handling conversations with maturity is having respect for other people's levels of comfort. Yes, political conversations are supposed to be uncomfortable, but they should not make people feel attacked or hurt. That is a prime example of nonproductive conversation. So relax, take it easy, and just breathe.
I know this goes against a specific sub-step mentioned earlier, but this is the good kind of laughing, not the condescending kind. Odds are the political conversation you're having is with your friends, family, or close colleagues, so you should never really hold your conversation with too much severity. Don't forget that you're not actually having a discussion that could potentially drastically change a law, you're having a constructive conversation so that you can gain new perspective! No one really likes to yell or get angry at their friends or family, so throw in a couple laughs!
Now, I'm not saying you should make everyone's opinion into a joke, because that will tell them that you have no respect for their opinions. Instead, take the more "meta" approach and joke about the conversation as a whole. Keep things light and happy! Also, be mindful of certain topics that can or cannot have jokes be made about them. For example, don't make rape jokes. Ever. Generally, don't joke about topics that you should very well know are sensitive topics to other people. All you have to do is stop taking everything so seriously!
14. (An Alternative Step) Don't!
Sometimes the best way to have a political conversation is to avoid having one at all! Yes, political conversations are important to have. They're what gives us American citizens the ability to make our voices heard and to make change in our society, but it does not have to be the only we ever talk about. Sometimes when someone wants to raise a topic of politics in the wrong setting (for example, a wedding reception), it's perfectly acceptable to avoid talking about that topic. A key to this step is knowing your audience, and doing at the right place and time. Are you in your Comparative Politics class at college? By all means, talk about politics! Are you at a baby shower for your sister-in-law? Then no, avoid politics like avoiding a wildfire. There's a time and place to open up the can of worms that is politics, and knowing when and where those times and places are will automatically make having a political conversation.
And if you're just not in the mood for politics, that's fine too! If this ever happens to you, I suggest using one of the topic changing statements listed below:
1. "Oh I just remembered, I'm sick today!" Proceed to go home and take a nap. You've earned it.
2. "You're right, Bill, taxes have been getting higher. You know what else has been getting higher? My hopes for the Black Panther movie coming out soon!" Proceed to then talk to your friend about this upcoming movie because let's face it, that movie is going to be awesome.
3. "WHY HAVEN'T THEY BROUGHT BACK OREO-O'S YET!?" This response may seem off-topic and may make your friends feel a little weirded out, but it's a perfectly valid point because OREO-O'S ARE AMAZING.
It is with these helpful steps that you--yes, YOU!--can manage to have a perfectly civil and mature conversation about politics. And remember, avoiding our problems don't make them go away. Use your right as an American citizen to talk to others and be heard, because silence is compliance. Also, don't forget to take a breather from all the talk about politics. Lord knows none of us can handle it 24/7.