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12 Steps to Political Sobriety

1. Admit you have a problem

It’s like you’re a different person when using politics.

Normally you’re curious and insightful, thirsty for knowledge and good discussion. But when politics get involved, you change. You start quoting Rachel Maddow or Bill O’Reilly to prove points no one is refuting. Remember Christmas dinner last year when you took Uncle Ted to task on the Benghazi scandal? That sweet, old man just wanted to convey his love for Michael Bay films, but your politics got in the way.

I fear a future where you (and I and everyone else) continue down this path. That future has already revealed itself — from gridlocked government to contentious family gatherings and everywhere in between. But hope is not lost. You’re not alone. We all struggle with politics — and can work to control it.

2. Recognize your enablers

You can’t escape politics, but recognizing what enables you to abuse politics will help quell its toxicity.

Two Party System — You’re handcuffed from the start.

Media — Echo chambers telling you what you want to here, the constant stream of hostile punditry and commentary overwhelming the senses to a point where you can’t help but follow their lead, everyone trying to tell you what to think, leaving little time to think for yourself, media bias, clickbait, social media — they form a fucked up cocktail that’ll put you on your ass before you realize what’s in it.

Mental shortcuts — There’s simply too much going on at any given time to keep up with, let alone be conversant in. Solution? Whittle the topic down to talking points, turn it into a dichotomy, and boom — you’re ready for rhetorical battle.

Tribalism/Human Nature — Remember how your teachers tricked you into learning? They made it a competition — a high stakes game of winners and losers. The energy in that classroom would explode with loyalty to the team and cries of unfairness. Now apply that dynamic to some of the most important and fundamental issues in your life, and let millions of other kids play.

Your ego — You’re sometimes wrong. It’s tough to not take that as a failure or personal attack.

The Internet — Because the Internet.

There may be more specific things. Maybe it’s comment threads on the New York Times website, or Steve from accounting who needs everyone to know that he reads the entire Sunday Wall Street Journal. We get it, Steve. Go count stuff.

3. Filter out the noise

When you find yourself exposed to politics, remember your enablers and attempt to filter out their influence.

For example, let’s say the Presidential candidate you most agree with is involved in yet another scandal.

You are not doomed to pick a side. Subscribing to 99% of a party’s platform doesn’t require an instinctive defense of that party’s scandal de jour. It doesn’t require anything. Pretend the roles are reversed — how do you view the situation now?

Instead of checking in with your favorite blogger, knowing the gist of their take on the scandal before you even read it, explore a bit. Seek out themes and perspectives from a spectrum of resources, ideally those you know you’ll disagree with. (Seriously, no better way to test your ideas than to constantly read and watch people shitting on them.) Once you have a solid base, contemplate how and why the scandal can be interpreted in so many ways. Where’s the disagreement? Over fact? Over moral or ethical or ideological opinions? Where do you fall in all of it?

This filtering process will never be perfect. All you can do is consciously apply your filters and keep trucking.

4. Keep in mind the factors that influence your worldview

So much of what makes you you is out of your control — your parents, your ethnicity, your biology, and on and on and on. Yet it all plays into how and what you think.

Take sports fandom as an example. If you were born in Boston, you’d very likely be a Red Sox fan. Had you popped out a couple hundred miles south, you’d love their arch rival. Weirdly arbitrary, right? Yet it’s insanely important, not only in terms of why people do, say and believe the things they do, but also in understanding why Steve from accounting won’t shut the fuck up about the corporate tax system. (**Deep breaths, it’s been three months and four days since your last outburst. Remember the steps…).

Conscious, continuous consideration of this reality is a positive step toward taking control of your politics.

5. Take objective stock of your subjectivity

Feeling a certain way, your way, about a topic/issue/person/event is natural, unavoidable, telling, and distortionary all at the same time. Your internal reactions to political issues have meaning, sure; they’re an amalgamation of everything you’ve experienced up until the moment they surface. When you care for or believe deeply in something, your reflexive emotions will bring it to the fore. They can help to show your core values and purpose in life (or whatever, I’m no Tony Robbins).

But don’t kid yourself. Your feelings can, and will, muddy your relationship with politics — anger toward fact-denying talking heads on CNN, admiration for the Senator who’d probably be great to have a beer with, frustration when things don’t go the way you’d hoped — to name just a fraction of a fraction. Short of a lobotomy, you’re forever forced into battle with your subjective self.

Madison Ave ad agencies, Donald Trump and other influencers leverage emotions and have found great success in exploiting them. They’re playing chess. They understand how human nature affects our decisions and beliefs. If you don’t come to the same understanding, you’ll be stuck playing checkers, moving side to side, up and down, in a game that allows far more complex maneuvers.

6. Start thinking in terms of the gray area

You interpret the world from a position somewhere on the political spectrum. That position is where it is for legit reasons (your experiences, the opinions you’ve refined, etc.) and for shittier reasons (media exacerbation, calloused partisanship, human imperfection, etc.).

Challenge yourself to strip those things away, at least temporarily, when thinking about political issues. That’s not a prescription for robotic uber-rationality (though you can pretend you’re the Terminator, sent back in time to save politics, if it helps). Just start as a blank slate, straddling the divide between the two sides that naturally form on all topics, controversial or not.

From this neutral point within the gray area, equipped with the insights from previous steps, you can develop a point of view in a more natural, sober way — not a perfect way, maybe not even optimal, but certainly better.

7. Try to understand the people you disagree with

At wartime, the enemy is depicted as a soulless savage devoid of reason so that we can feel justified in our thoughts and actions directed toward them. The same thing happens in politics. But politics isn’t war — it’s the complete fucking opposite.

Read articles, go down a YouTube rabbit hole, dive into comment threads, dissect the minds of family and friends. Humanize “them.”

8. Seek out resistance

When you force your thinking into the gray area, you’ll encounter resistance to long-held understandings of the world. That’s the goal. Resistance exposes your weaknesses and builds strength where it’s needed.

One of the easiest ways to encounter this healthy resistance is to read publications and watch news programs you traditionally disagree with. It’s often a bitch. But you’ll build up a tolerance; not for shrugging off ideas that feel antithetical to your own, but for processing them.

If done in an intellectually-honest way, you’ll be uncomfortable. You believed X since you could follow the nightly news report, having cemented it into your political foundation long ago. But X may begin to erode from the flow of resistance you’ve consciously bombarded yourself with. Let it.

9. Be willing to change your mind

It ain’t easy to do. It’s sometimes physically uncomfortable. You’ll feel wrong, with a tinge of failure. Ignore that shit. It’s not even remotely a failure — it’s a success, a sign of personal growth, an affirmation of progress. You overcame resistance, ego, the media and Scott in accounting to reach a more nuanced, more refined understanding of the world.

Most involved in politics don’t change their minds. They stick to their guns (at times literally), morphing reality to conform to their own perception of it, instead of the other way around.

10. Keep working at it.

Maintaining your political sobriety means being perpetually open to changing your mind. If you work at it hard enough, you may be refining your worldview on a daily basis. There will also be plenty of chances for relapse. The same enablers and factors that muddied your rapport with politics will still be there.

That just means you have to keep working at it. No secret or special insight here.

11. Help others to sober up

You can pretty easily identify the people in your life who could use a political intervention. Since they likely don’t respond well to criticism, I wouldn’t exactly ambush them with letters detailing the times their politics hurt you.

What you can do is engage them with a clear understanding of the myriad forces trying to breed contention between you, and minimize their influence on your side of the discussion. Some concrete tips when talking politics:

· Maintain a calm, cool, and collected demeanor– it’s contagious, because it makes the lone combatant look ridiculous if they raise their voice spouting superficial talking points.

· Agree with them on something. Doesn’t have to be substantial, just anything to diffuse the situation. Agreement acts as a reset button to get back to a more productive interaction.

· Focus on ideas rather than people/parties. Ideas can’t be shot down by citing their unrelated scandals and failures.

· If the person is truly intolerable, just ignore them. Keeping their petty, self-assuring game going only fans the flames.

12. Take a breather from politics

Time away from the insanity will enhance your perspective. It’s all too easy to get mired down in the pessimistic weeds, forgetting that the greatest time to be alive is right now.

So don’t visit your news sources for a few days. Watch Netflix instead of pundit roundtables. Get off Medium for a bit. Seriously, get outta here.

Check out my first post, The Gray Area