Political Discussion Pitfalls

Posted on 2018 April 15

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People suppose they have the right way, and it is the only way. — Jeffrey Tucker

“Political discussion” is an oxymoron. — Quippy

Have you noticed how people in political discussions never, ever change their minds? You’d think public controversies ought to be talked out reasonably by the citizens — that’s the responsible thing to do, or so we’re taught — but instead people simply fight each other, trying to dominate the dialogue. When it comes to politics, we either shout at our opponents or hold our ears and yell “LA-LA-LA-LA-LAAAH!”

Why does this keep happening? Let us count the ways:

 1. “Political discussion” is an oxymoron: Studies on blood flow in the brain show that a mere conversation about politics makes the pre-frontal logic lobes go to sleep while an emotion center (the amygdala) and the “who goes there?” center (anterior cingulate cortex) become hyper-active. Merely to chat about politics makes us angry, suspicious, and somewhat moronic. 

 2. Tribalism always prevails: We descend from people who survived by protecting their small, rural groups against outsiders. This doesn’t work so well in big, crowded cities, where we must get along with strangers whom our ancestors would have killed on sight. But our DNA hasn’t gotten the memo. Thus your debating opponents won’t trust you and will disregard your arguments as bad and wrong while their group’s ideas are good and right. Merely to consider your points will smack to them of treason. It’s kinda paranoid, but that’s how it works (with your side, too, by the way). 

 3. Science-based arguments suffer from the “backfire effect”: When you try to convince others that “researchers have proven your approach leads to undesirable outcomes,” they become more convinced, rather than less, that you are wrong. Weird but true. 

 4. What bothers you doesn’t bother them: Just because you’re sure your side’s concerns are reasonable doesn’t mean that (a) they are, or (b) the other side will logically have to agree with you. (See points 1, 2, and 3, above.) A liberal might say, “But minorities will be harmed by your ideas!” which would make many on the Right stifle a smile; a conservative might say, “But your legislation will damage corporations!” which would make many on the Left snigger. 

 5. The “Dictator emergency” argument is worn out: “Trump is a danger to American democracy!” sounds a lot like what conservatives intoned against Obama. Each president was, in his own way, distinctly new and different, and opposing voters reacted with horrified shock. But had Hillary been elected, we’d also be hearing the “she’s a dictator” argument from the Right. It’s becoming a tradition to deplore each new president as the end of the world. *YAWN*

…Are there ways out of the vicious circle of political debate? Here are some suggestions for your next soirée:

 1. Pretend you’re from Mars: Guide the conversation up into the skies above the battlefield, where it’s easier for both sides to get perspective on the costs of feuding and the advantages of solutions that minimize the controversy. Are there, for example, new technologies that might solve a problem? (E.g., Uber/Lyft eases traffic burdens; the sharing/gig economy generates part-time work to help the unemployed; drones can reduce delivery costs for everyone.)

 2. Appeal to their families’ interests: Political discussions tend to get tangled up in what will help “society”. But that’s too abstract. Instead, suggest that your solution “will help your family do better”. This is much more concrete, and when we think about families we aren’t thinking as much about tribes.

 3. Appeal to them personally: Likewise, we’re by nature much less concerned about the whole world than we are about our personal situations. Helping humanity is a nice ideal, but when that topic comes up in politics, people gravitate to what their side says about the issue, and suddenly it’s all about tribes again. Instead, “This will affect your bottom line” or “This will affect your personal freedom” are concepts people can visualize in their own lives. It’s less political when it’s just you and your pocket book, or you and your day-to-day activities, than when it’s about the whole world. You get practical; you can discuss solutions that work for you. You’re not blockaded from calm discussion by your tribal loyalties.

 4. Argue for their sides’ interests: Pretend you’re on their side — just swallow hard and do it! — and think of arguments they’d might make to convince themselves to agree with you. Then limit your arguments to those points. And use their jargon. (A liberal might ask a conservative, “With a tightened border and fewer immigrants, won’t it be hard for farmers to bring in the crops?” A Republican might say to a Democrat, “Trump is trying to revive working-class jobs and protect America from offshoring and unfair foreign trade — isn’t that what everyone wants?”)

 5. Suggest they stand up to their leaders on some issues: Instead of a completely futile attempt to convince them their leader is wicked and must be brought up on charges, try an appeal to their sense of independence: “Okay, sure, you like Trump, but you don’t have to agree with everything he does. Support him on some things, but tell him nobody likes him, you know, threatening press freedom.” Or: “Okay, sure, you like [Hillary, Bernie, ____], but your own side should stand up to her/him about their hard line on [Israel, corporations, ____] because it will cause [diplomatic problems, a recession, ____].” 

The whole point isn’t to convince your opponent of your side’s beliefs, but to loosen their tight grip on the bonds that connect them to their beliefs. Those tight bonds served our ancestors in the agrarian past as they fought marauding strangers, but that same stubbornness can today hinder rational discussion and sensible compromise. So try the above approaches — you might turn an argument back into a discussion.

And maybe … just maybe … your own beliefs will loosen up.

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Here’s a flowchart summary:

flowchart POLITICAL DISCUSSIONS decisiontree@2018.04.15_15.16.17

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Posted in: Politics