Why You Shouldn’t Hide Your Political Beliefs
If we avoid talking about politics, the situation is just going to get worse
There’s an important difference between a belief and an opinion.
An opinion is your answer to a question that has no true “right” answer. Your opinion that rocky road is the best ice cream flavor is an opinion because there is no right answer to the question “which ice cream flavor is the best?”
A belief, on the other hand, is your answer to a question whose answer exists, but whose answer we can’t know. The question “is there a God” certainly has a right answer — either yes, or no, or even multiple or many or the universe itself is god — but we have no way of knowing for certain what it is. We call our personal answers for these unanswerable questions our beliefs.
What this means is, if you’re an Atheist and your friend is a Christian, the unfortunate truth is at least one of you are wrong (potentially both of you). This is an inescapable reality of life; the vast majority of people’s beliefs on the vast majority of things are wrong. Most of us go through our entire lives laboring under delusions.
The thing is, we don’t have to go about laboring under delusions. Unlike opinions, beliefs can be debated. There’s no point debating with someone over their favorite flavor of ice cream because there is no right flavor of ice cream. There is a point debating with someone about their beliefs because there does exist a right answer, even if we haven’t found it yet. After all, the whole purpose of having beliefs at all is to engage in the search for the truth — we know there is a right answer out there, and we hope we can figure it out.
But most cultures make it very difficult to find that right answer because most cultures consider it taboo to debate beliefs. After all, what subjects are we supposed to never bring up at the dinner table? Religion and politics — subjects that are so difficult to talk about precisely because finding the right answer is so damn difficult. But the fact that it’s extremely difficult to tackle these issues doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
You might say that the reason we avoid these topics is to keep the peace. After all, people get emotional about these things. Some people get rude, argumentative, and downright bigoted about it. But I think these people exist precisely because we don’t talk about these things; they develop their beliefs in the privacy of their own mind, unchallenged by anything they don’t like, and therefore they become deeply emotionally attached to them. Since they have not been exposed to any competing beliefs, they have forgotten that legitimate competing beliefs even exist. A culture that avoids difficult conversations doesn’t prevent bigots from existing — it creates a breeding ground for them.
And what a breeding ground America has become. People in America can’t even agree on the most basic facts: is the President a fascist? Are cops brutalizing black people? Are immigrants bad for our nation? Should abortion be illegal? These questions draw on foundational philosophical beliefs about what it means to be in a political party, what ‘a nation’ really is, and what it means to have rights, beliefs we are unable to articulate or discuss. We have lost the ability to talk and think critically, and as a result, cannot come to a consensus about even the most basic of things.
We need to start talking about our foundational beliefs. You know, things like:
- What matters most in life?
- Why do we do more than simply roll out of bed and do the absolute minimum amount of work it takes to get through the day?
- What does it mean to live a good life?
- Why do we take emotional risks with people for nothing more than the pleasure of the company of whom they’re taking the risk with?
- Why do we live?
Complicated political and religious questions, always boil back down to basics like these. For instance, the question “should abortion be illegal” and “what does it mean to live a good life” both get back to the same question, “what does it mean to be a person?”
- Is a person merely a set of contiguous experiences created in the mind of a biological organism with the DNA sequences of a human?
- Is a person the biological incarnation of a supernatural spark we call a ‘soul,’ given to us at conception by a creator?
- Is a person born for an explicit purpose, a plan, or is a person born solely to live their life however they will?
Whether you consider abortion to be murder or not depends on your answer to this question. As a society, we can’t agree on what it means to be a person, and as a result, we can’t agree on what constitutes appropriate abortion regulations.
In this way, most questions we ask end up getting back to basics. And if we as a people can’t even talk calmly about the basics, how can we even hope to untangle complex questions like “What should the President’s attitude toward China rejecting our recycling be?” or “How does illegal immigration affect the valuation of the U.S. dollar?”
How to Talk About What Matters
If you want to start talking about what matters, the first step is to actually open up the topic. If you hear someone say something you find problematic, mention it. Don’t call them out or read them the riot act, just politely point out that what they said seems problematic. Explain your view on the matter. Then earnestly listen to their response.
While you converse, keep these two things in mind:
- You may be wrong. In fact, you probably are wrong — the odds are high that of the kaleidoscope of different beliefs out there, the set you hold are probably farther from the truth than closer. You should be emotionally prepared to say “You’re right, I didn’t think of that” out loud and mean it.
- The person you’re talking to knows things you don’t know. A lot of things. People experience all kinds of different things in their lifetime, and they think in all sorts of unexpected ways. Chances are very high the person you’re talking to will say things that surprise you and make points you haven’t thought of. So, instead of listening with an answer at the ready, you should listen as if you were about to be surprised. When you do respond, respond as if you were conducting an inquiry into that which you don’t know. After all, that is what you’re doing.
If these things weren’t true — that you may be wrong, and that the person you’re speaking to may hold a piece of the puzzle you don’t have access to — there would be no point in even trying to have conversations about anything worthwhile at all.
If there did exist someone out there who is never wrong and always knows what they need to know without having to be told, they should probably try to dismantle our democracy and become our dictator. But this person doesn’t exist — so don’t act like it’s you.