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How to Debate Politics Without Being a Complete Jerk

How to Debate Politics Without Being a Complete Jerk

The reason it’s so hard to talk about politics nicely is that all politics boils down what rights and privileges you think people should have or not have, and it’s impossible not to take that personally. However, just because it’s difficult, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. Politics affects absolutely everything and so to not talk about it is to not talk about a massive aspect of everyone’s lives.

Whatever your political opinion, everyone should agree that a more informed and more engaged population is a good thing. For that to happen, we need to figure out a way of talking about politics without coming across like screaming lunatics.

1. Don’t Assume Everybody Is Lying

In November 2016, I was travelling around the US with my girlfriend and so we were there in the build up to (and the aftermath of) the 2016 election. Needless to say, politics came up a lot. In hostels filled with young 20-somethings from across the world (albeit, mainly economically developed countries), political arguments bubbled up as people threw facts at each other.

Facts are a vital tool for debate; that much is obvious. Still, like every great tool, they need to be used properly. The temptation is to bombard your fellow interlocutor with the facts that you have so as to bury them with information. You already have an answer to every counter-argument they have with a list of statistics you’ve memorised and you know exactly why you’re right.

Everything is going great until the person you’re talking with pulls up a different fact, from a study you’ve not heard of, and it throws you because it upsets your worldview. The kneejerk reaction is a response that everyone should avoid:

“That’s a lie.”

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I’ve watched this happen. I watched two very intelligent people talk about gun violence in the US, a sensitive topic if ever there was one. The conversation turned into a monologue as the guy closest to me listed a whole bunch of facts he had. The guy sat opposite replied with a very big claim, backed up by another statistic, and so the immediate reaction from the guy sitting next to me was to accuse the other of making something up. The response to that was something I’ll never forget:

“If you’re going to assume I’m lying, then there’s no point in us having this conversation.”

If you ever doubt what someone is saying to you, your job is to research the truth for yourself. It’s true that sometimes people are wrong because they misinterpret information, and sometimes people are wrong because they misremember information. And yes, sometimes people will straight up lie to you.

Still, you have to start each conversation with the assumption that people won’t lie to you. Politely fact-checking is one thing, but assuming someone else is a liar just because you don’t agree with them is quite another.

Society is built on trust. Restaurant owners trust that customers will pay the full amount before leaving; car owners trust that engineers have built sturdy roads and bridges; and debaters need to trust that the other isn’t lying to them. Otherwise, “there’s no point in us having this conversation.”

2. Don’t Assume Everybody Is Telling The Truth

This might seem like a complete contradiction, but it really isn’t. When we’re debating with someone we disagree with, we tend to assume that they’re wrong. When we’re debating with someone we agree with, we tend to assume that they’re right. This is confirmation bias,[1] while it’s something that everyone is guilty of, that doesn’t make it okay.

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When we read the news, we’re often just looking for the information that helps us to confirm our existing beliefs. It requires less mental effort to think, “I am right and they are wrong” than to recognise that the reality is much more nuanced. We tend to fact-check when we think people are lying, but we don’t tend to do it when we think people are telling the truth. What we should be doing is fact-checking indiscriminately. If you give every statistic you agree with the same dose of healthy scepticism that you give every statistic you do agree with, you’ll begin to understand why other people think the way they think.

3. All News Outlets Are Biased (And So Are You)

Bias exists everywhere and news outlets are both the agents of this phenomenon and the victims of it. News outlets are businesses. Imagine you owned a business whose job was to report the events of the day. You would end up expressing your opinion on the news you were reporting even if you tried not to. Every word you choose to use (or not use) and every detail you choose to focus on (or not focus on) reveals your bias. Even if all the words you say are true and all the details you focus on are relevant, your bias is still there.

The idea of “objective” or “neutral” news is a fallacy. Objectivity exists in the realms of physics and mathematics, but the real world (and the language we use to express ourselves in the real world) is too chaotic and fluid to be understood objectively.

In linguistics and computing, this is known as the symbol grounding problem[2] and it’s essentially the reason why we’ve not been able to create consciousness in robots. To simplify, the symbol grounding problem is the notion that no matter how basic you make a symbol, people are still able to disagree about its meaning. Take this symbol, for example:

A large symbol
    What is it?

    Is it the letter “I” or is it the letter “l”? Or is it an image? If so, an image of what? Is it a pole? Is it a building? Is it a road?

    There’s no correct answer. That symbol could be a whole host of things depending on the context or on your point of view. When you realise how difficult it is to get people to agree on what one symbol means, then you can understand why things become problematic when those symbols become words, those words become sentences, and those sentences become political news coverage.

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    4. Be Nice…

    It sounds obvious enough, and yet so much televised political debate features politicians belittling other politicians. From Prime Minister’s questions in the UK to the primary and presidential debates in the US, politicians are bent on insulting each other.

    We all know the reason for this; they’re trying to make the other person look weak in order to gain votes. Evidently, it must work. Otherwise, they wouldn’t keep doing it. But why do we do it? Why do we insult each other when we talk about politics?

    As an unashamed science-fiction fan, I am reminded of an episode of Doctor Who. When trying to stop yet another alien from destroying the planet, he pleads with them: “I just want you to think. Do you know what thinking is? It’s just a fancy word for changing your mind.” When we talk politics, that’s all we’re trying to do deep down. All of the heightened rhetoric, all of the grandstanding, and all of the raised voices: it’s all just to try and get someone else to change their mind.

    In that sense, political debate and marketing is the same thing: the art of persuasion. As someone who works for a digital marketing agency, I have long known that nastiness doesn’t persuade anyone of anything. People don’t choose Coca-Cola over Pepsi because Coca-Cola said that the people who drink Pepsi are idiots who don’t know what’s “really” going on. Rather, Coca-Cola wooed people by talking about their product’s benefits.

    5. But Don’t Mistake “Nice” for “Correct”

    Good marketing is about creating a nice image for a product or service, whereas good political debate should be about a lot more than that. Sometimes this is not the case. Sometimes politicians are charming and polite and extremely courteous to the opposition while also being utterly incorrect. As an informed voter, your job is to see through that.

    By extension, if a friend is being uncharming and impolite and extremely discourteous to you, they might still have a valid point. Don’t rise to their anger, but do engage with their ideas.

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    6. Try Harder

    Debating politics is hard and so most of us avoid it completely. You might think that you’re debating politics because you share something online and then talk about it with your friends. Heck, sometimes you might talk about a story with your friends offline as well. You express your opinion and they express their opinion. That’s debate, right?

    Possibly. Though, chances are, your friends have pretty much the same political views you do. Sure, a few of them might have dissenting views here and there, but most of the time you agree. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be friends.

    Even if this is not the case offline, social media helps to create bubbles[3] which ensure that this is the case online. Facebook, for example, only shows you content from the people and pages that you like and engage with.[4] If you don’t like it or engage with it, it won’t be shown to you. In other words, if you do happen to have a friend who has views that you don’t agree with, you’ll rarely see those views on your Facebook feed.

    The only real solution to this, aside from not using social media, is to engage with the other side. Leap across the political divide rather than settling comfortably into your own biases and simply dismissing the other side as full of crazies. It’s easy enough to throw around the word “extreme” when describing someone’s political views, but they probably don’t see their own views as extreme. To them, you’re the extremist.

    7. “Imagine Others Complexly”

    This is a philosophy created and endorsed by the Vlogbrothers[5] and it’s essential to discussing politics. In order to have better conversations about politics, you need to imagine others complexly. Understand that the process that led someone else to their political opinion is as complicated and nuanced as the process that led you to your political opinion.

    If you manage to do that, alongside everything else I’ve mentioned, let me know how you managed it. You’ll be a bigger and better person than I am for sure. What’s more, you just might be able to debate politics without being a complete jerk.

    Featured photo credit: David Shankbone – Wikimedia Commons via commons.wikimedia.org

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    Mitchell Labiak

    Freelance Writer. Digital Marketing Consultant at Exposure Ninja. Vlogger at YouTube.

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    Last Updated on February 21, 2019

    The Secret to Effective Conflict Resolution: The IBR Approach

    The Secret to Effective Conflict Resolution: The IBR Approach

    In business, in social relationships, in family… In whatever context conflict is always inevitable, especially when you are in the leader role. This role equals “make decisions for the best of majority” and the remaining are not amused. Conflicts arise.

    Conflicts arise when we want to push for a better quality work but some members want to take a break from work.

    Conflicts arise when we as citizens want more recreational facilities but the Government has to balance the needs to maintain tourism growth.

    Conflicts are literally everywhere.

    Avoiding Conflicts a No-No and Resolving Conflicts a Win-Win

    Avoiding conflicts seem to be a viable option for us. The cruel fact is, it isn’t. Conflicts won’t walk away by themselves. They will, instead, escalate and haunt you back even more when we finally realize that’s no way we can let it be.

    Moreover, avoiding conflicts will eventually intensify the misunderstanding among the involved parties. And the misunderstanding severely hinders open communication which later on the parties tend to keep things secret. This is obviously detrimental to teamwork.

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    Some may view conflicts as the last step before arguments. And they thus leave it aside as if they never happen. This is not true.

    Conflicts are the intersect point between different individuals with different opinions. And this does not necessarily lead to argument.

    Instead, proper handling of conflicts can actually result in a win-win situation – both parties are pleased and allies are gained. A better understanding between each other and future conflicts are less likely to happen.

    The IBR Approach to Resolve Conflicts

    Here, we introduce to you an effective approach to resolve conflicts – the Interest-Based Relational (IBR) approach. The IBR approach was developed by Roger Fisher and William Ury in their 1981 book Getting to Yes. It stresses the importance of the separation between people and their emotions from the problem. Another focus of the approach is to build mutual understanding and respect as they strengthen bonds among parties and can ultimately help resolve conflicts in a harmonious way. The approach suggests a 6-step procedure for conflict resolution:

    Step 1: Prioritize Good Relationships

    How? Before addressing the problem or even starting the discussion, make it clear the conflict can result in a mutual trouble and through subsequent respectful negotiation the conflict can be resolved peacefully. And that brings the best outcome to the whole team by working together.

    Why? It is easy to overlook own cause of the conflict and point the finger to the members with different opinions. With such a mindset, it is likely to blame rather than to listen to the others and fail to acknowledge the problem completely. Such a discussion manner will undermine the good relationships among the members and aggravate the problem.

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    Example: Before discussion, stress that the problem is never one’s complete fault. Everyone is responsible for it. Then, it is important to point out our own involvement in the problem and state clearly we are here to listen to everyone’s opinions rather than accusing others.

    Step 2: People Are NOT the Cause of Problem

    How? State clearly the problem is never one-sided. Collaborative effort is needed. More importantly, note the problem should not be taken personally. We are not making accusations on persons but addressing the problem itself.

    Why? Once things taken personally, everything will go out of control. People will become irrational and neglect others’ opinions. We are then unable to address the problem properly because we cannot grasp a fuller and clearer picture of the problem due to presumption.

    Example: In spite of the confronting opinions, we have to emphasize that the problem is not a result of the persons but probably the different perspectives to view it. So, if we try to look at the problem from the other’s perspective, we may understand why there are varied opinions.

    Step 3: Listen From ALL Stances

    How? Do NOT blame others. It is of utmost importance. Ask for everyone’s opinions. It is important to let everyone feel that they contribute to the discussion. Tell them their involvement is essential to solve the problem and their effort is very much appreciated.

    Why? None wants to be ignored. If one feels neglected, it is very likely for he/she to be aggressive. It is definitely not what we hope to see in a discussion. Acknowledging and being acknowledged are equally important. So, make sure everyone has equal opportunity to express their views. Also, realizing their opinions are not neglected, they will be more receptive to other opinions.

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    Example: A little trick can played here: Invite others to talk first. It is an easy way to let others feel involved and ,more importantly, know their voices are heard. Also, we can show that we are actively listening to them by giving direct eye-contact and nodding. One important to note is that never interrupt anyone. Always let them finish first beforeanother one begins.

    Step 4: Listen Comes First, Talk Follows

    How? Ensure everyone has listened to one another points of view. It can be done by taking turn to speak and leaving the discussion part at last. State once again the problem is nothing personal and no accusation should be made.

    Why? By turn-taking, everyone can finish talking and voices of all sides can be heard indiscriminantly. This can promote willingness to listen to opposing opinions.

    Example: We can prepare pieces of paper with different numbers written on them. Then, ask different members to pick one and talk according to the sequence of the number. After everyone’s finished, advise everyone to use “I” more than “You” in the discussion period to avoid others thinking that it is an accusation.

    Step 5: Understand the Facts, Then Address the Problem

    How? List out ALL the facts first. Ask everyone to tell what they know about the problems.

    Why? Sometimes your facts are unknown to the others while they may know something we don’t. Missing out on these facts could possibly lead to inaccurate capture of the problem. Also, different known facts can lead to different perception of the matter. It also helps everyone better understand the problem and can eventually help reach a solution.

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    Example: While everyone is expressing their own views, ask them to write down everything they know that is true to the problem. As soon as everyone has finished, all facts can be noted and everyone’s understanding of the problem is raised.

    Step 6: Solve the Problem Together

    How? Knowing what everyone’s thinking, it is now time to resolve the conflict. Up to this point, everyone should have understood the problem better. So, it is everyone’s time to suggest some solutions. It is important not to have one giving all the solutions.

    Why? Having everyone suggesting their solutions is important as they will not feel excluded and their opinions are considered. Besides, it may also generate more solutions that can better resolve the conflicts. Everyone will more likely be satisfied with the result.

    Example: After discussion, ask all members to suggest any possible solutions and stress that all solutions are welcomed. State clearly that we are looking for the best outcomes for everyone’s sake rather than battling to win over one another. Then, evaluate all the solutions and pick the one that is in favor of everyone.

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