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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 December 3, 2019

    10 Life Lessons You’d Better Learn Early on in Life

    10 Life Lessons You’d Better Learn Early on in Life

    There are so many lessons I wish I had learned while I was young enough to appreciate and apply them. The thing with wisdom, and often with life lessons in general, is that they’re learned in retrospect, long after we needed them. The good news is that other people can benefit from our experiences and the lessons we’ve learned.

    Here’re 10 important life lessons you should learn early on:

    1. Money Will Never Solve Your Real Problems

    Money is a tool; a commodity that buys you necessities and some nice “wants,” but it is not the panacea to your problems.

    There are a great many people who are living on very little, yet have wonderfully full and happy lives… and there are sadly a great many people are living on quite a lot, yet have terribly miserable lives.

    Money can buy a nice home, a great car, fabulous shoes, even a bit of security and some creature comforts, but it cannot fix a broken relationship, or cure loneliness, and the “happiness” it brings is only fleeting and not the kind that really and truly matters. Happiness is not for sale. If you’re expecting the “stuff” you can buy to “make it better,” you will never be happy.

    2. Pace Yourself

    Often when we’re young, just beginning our adult journey we feel as though we have to do everything at once. We need to decide everything, plan out our lives, experience everything, get to the top, find true love, figure out our life’s purpose, and do it all at the same time.

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    Slow down—don’t rush into things. Let your life unfold. Wait a bit to see where it takes you, and take time to weigh your options. Enjoy every bite of food, take time to look around you, let the other person finish their side of the conversation. Allow yourself time to think, to mull a bit.

    Taking action is critical. Working towards your goals and making plans for the future is commendable and often very useful, but rushing full-speed ahead towards anything is a one-way ticket to burnout and a good way to miss your life as it passes you by.

    3. You Can’t Please Everyone

    “I don’t know the secret to success, but the secret to failure is trying to please everyone” – Bill Cosby.

    You don’t need everyone to agree with you or even like you. It’s human nature to want to belong, to be liked, respected and valued, but not at the expense of your integrity and happiness. Other people cannot give you the validation you seek. That has to come from inside.

    Speak up, stick to your guns, assert yourself when you need to, demand respect, stay true to your values.

    4. Your Health Is Your Most Valuable Asset

    Health is an invaluable treasure—always appreciate, nurture, and protect it. Good health is often wasted on the young before they have a chance to appreciate it for what it’s worth.

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    We tend to take our good health for granted, because it’s just there. We don’t have to worry about it, so we don’t really pay attention to it… until we have to.

    Heart disease, bone density, stroke, many cancers—the list of many largely preventable diseases is long, so take care of your health now, or you’ll regret it later on.

    5. You Don’t Always Get What You Want

    “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

    No matter how carefully you plan and how hard you work, sometimes things just don’t work out the way you want them to… and that’s okay.

    We have all of these expectations; predetermined visions of what our “ideal” life will look like, but all too often, that’s not the reality of the life we end up with. Sometimes our dreams fail and sometimes we just change our minds mid-course. Sometimes we have to flop to find the right course and sometimes we just have to try a few things before we find the right direction.

    6. It’s Not All About You

    You are not the epicenter of the universe. It’s very difficult to view the world from a perspective outside of your own, since we are always so focused on what’s happening in our own lives. What do I have to do today? What will this mean for me, for my career, for my life? What do I want?

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    It’s normal to be intensely aware of everything that’s going on in your own life, but you need to pay as much attention to what’s happening around you, and how things affect other people in the world as you do to your own life. It helps to keep things in perspective.

    7. There’s No Shame in Not Knowing

    No one has it all figured out. Nobody has all the answers. There’s no shame in saying “I don’t know.” Pretending to be perfect doesn’t make you perfect. It just makes you neurotic to keep up the pretense of manufactured perfection.

    We have this idea that there is some kind of stigma or shame in admitting our limitations or uncertainly, but we can’t possibly know everything. We all make mistakes and mess up occasionally. We learn as we go, that’s life.

    Besides—nobody likes a know-it-all. A little vulnerability makes you human and oh so much more relatable.

    8. Love Is More Than a Feeling; It’s a Choice

    That burst of initial exhilaration, pulse quickening love and passion does not last long. But that doesn’t mean long-lasting love is not possible.

    Love is not just a feeling; it’s a choice that you make every day. We have to choose to let annoyances pass, to forgive, to be kind, to respect, to support, to be faithful.

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    Relationships take work. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s incredibly hard. It is up to us to choose how we want to act, think and speak in a relationship.

    9. Perspective Is a Beautiful Thing

    Typically, when we’re worried or upset, it’s because we’ve lost perspective. Everything that is happening in our lives seems so big, so important, so do or die, but in the grand picture, this single hiccup often means next to nothing.

    The fight we’re having, the job we didn’t get, the real or imagined slight, the unexpected need to shift course, the thing we wanted, but didn’t get. Most of it won’t matter 20, 30, 40 years from now. It’s hard to see long term when all you know is short term, but unless it’s life-threatening, let it go, and move on.

    10. Don’t Take Anything for Granted

    We often don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone: that includes your health, your family and friends, your job, the money you have or think you will have tomorrow.

    When you’re young, it seems that your parents will always be there, but they won’t. You think you have plenty of time to get back in touch with your old friends or spend time with new ones, but you don’t. You have the money to spend, or you think you’ll have it next month, but you might not.

    Nothing in your life is not guaranteed to be there tomorrow, including those you love.

    This is a hard life lesson to learn, but it may be the most important of all: Life can change in an instant. Make sure you appreciate what you have, while you still have it.

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    Featured photo credit: Ben Eaton via unsplash.com

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