How to disagree about U.S. politics

U.S. politics in 2017 is all psychological warfare. Americans don’t just disagree on policy. We disagree on reality.

This last election baffled and dazed me. In my effort to cope, I reached out to all the Trump people I could find in my social circles and on my beloved Twitter and tried to talk politics with them.

If you’ve ever tried this, you know it’s a frustrating, sometimes horrible passtime. But maybe you, like me, believe the fate of the republic and all that’s noble depends on it. If so, here’s what I’ve learned, so you can have an easier time of it. I’m not an expert in anything relevant, and all I know I’ve learned ‘on the job.’ But, here’s what I got:

The goal

You’re not going to a person’s mind on anything important in one conversation. The best you can hope for is achieving a rapport and set of reasonable implied ground rules for further discussion.

People living across ideological divides see the world in radically divergent ways. We all take in information differently. We parse it differently. We have differing notions of what counts as evidence and valid argument. we have different senses of political right and wrong and view opposition political positions not only as bad ideas, but often as immoral or dangerous.

That’s as it should be. We define ourselves by what we value. Our political stances represent moral choices, sometimes made at real personal cost. It’s natural, then, to regard our hardened political opponents with deep suspicion if not outright contempt. That’s the baseline. That’s the reason these conversations so often degenerate into hostility and namecalling.

Our goal as committed political engagers is to transcend that basic aversion and find a way to actually exchange arguments and compare views. If your interlocutor comes away a warm or even a neutral impression of you as a human being, that’s an achievement not to be underestimated. They’ll think about what you say. More importantly, the next time they picture their ideological hate object—the lib snowflake, the radical nationalist—they’ll think of you instead. So, represent well.

Non-violent resistence

Establishing rapport is tricky work. Initially, people in political discussions across wide divides aren’t actually addressing each other. They are, instead, sparring with their image of their ideological hate object.

Things play out like this:

JANE: “[Mainline, milquetoast opinion in her circles].”

BOB: “You really think that? I’m sorry, but that’s [stupid/naive/offensive/immoral].”

JANE: “What? Are you a[colorful, ideology-specific insult]?”

And, hopefully it ends there, without further insult and burning of bridges.

The only way to break from that pattern is to resist the urge to rush to judgment yourself and to hope the other person follows suit. It’s not ideal, but that’s what I’ve found. In practice, it means suffering a stream of insults, sometimes cruel and unfair, nearly every time. It’s exhausting. It’s the culture we’re trying to change.

How do you handle it? You can try to gamely parry the insults and make it a joke. You can call people out for being unserious, ignoring the matter at hand. Or, you can ignore it and stick to the point. I’ve tried all three, and none work consistently. To a large degree, you just have to suffer it.

Listening

People who follow politics generally enjoy talking about it, and there’s a piquant novelty in talking about it with a member of the hated opposition. Debating their opposites — or, confronting them anyway — is what all their study and preparation is for.

If your interlocutor stops insulting you long enough to spell out their views, pay attention. People tell you what they value. They tell you the personal experiences that shape their views. They tell you who they trust and the one thing they know for sure.

In doing so, they tell you what you have in common what kind of arguments are likely to make an impact on them. It also softens your own hostility and makes easier to refrain from breaking into anger and name-calling yourself.

Give ground whenever possible…

People don’t take you seriously if they don’t think you’re playing fair. You must acknowledge valid points, highlight parts of arguments you agree with, and speak the language of conditionality and subjectivity. (“To me, that seems X” vs “That is X” — “I have a hard time believing that” vs “That’s bullshit.”).

Admit frankly when you’re uninformed on a topic and have only formed a superficial opinion. In the moment, it can feel like an admission of weakness, but it’s the opposite. All we know is what we’ve read and heard and seen ourselves. We have our views and our justifications for those views, and that’s it, not “the truth.” It requires courage to act accordingly.

When your interlocutor presents a “howler” argument or posits what strikes you as an absurd conspiracy theory, don’t throw up you hands. Instead, answer it. Try to earnestly explain why you, for your part, don’t find the argument or theory compelling.

… but never on what really counts.

Fairness goes both ways. When you present strong evidence and valid arguments and your interlocutor refuses to acknowledge your point, you have to call them out and insist. If he or she feels they’ve made a point, but you’re confident you’ve refuted it, don’t accept it and move on.

When an argument crosses a moral line for you, explain why you disagree, but also express how you feel. Moral lines in the sand are at the heart of why we care about politics. Your interlocutor has his or her lines. You have yours. A person without lines is a suspicious oddity.

So, take stands. The interlocutor will recognize what you’re doing, and, usually, respect it. Their disagreement will be secondary.

Go deep

Most people don’t think much about the moral and philosophical roots of their political views. Radical disagreements force us to do it in moments of high emotion, on a tight deadline. The more you dig into it ahead of time, the better off you’ll be.

I think some of my strongest arguments are personal ones. I oppose authoritarianism because my great-grandfather was murdered by a dictatorial regime he’d worked for all his life from idealism, likely helping to murder others along the way. My family suffered the effects of that legacy down to my own lifetime. (Also, the Holocaust).

I insist on minority rights and the rights of refugees because, being a Jew, I proceed with the historically-grounded fear that the majority among whom my family lives could someday become brutally hostile. My family are nearly all immigrants. Many of us were refugees. What am I supposed to think about it?

I’ve had success explaining all that to people. I’ve found it humanizes me and makes my politics comprehensible. Often, my interlocutors haven’t ever met a Jew, an immigrant, a refugee, a person who’s spent time in Russia, a New Yorker, a journalist, an “elite” who went to name-brand university, or what all else.

Knowing I’m ‘one of those’ often makes people curious, as long as I’m not aggressive or a snob about it. The cumulative effect of all this, instead of seeing me as their enemy, my interlocutor will often come to see me as a well-meaning fool. I may not grasp the obvious rightness of their views, but at least they can understand why. That attitude allows for friendship.

Be mindful of rhetorical gambitry

A lot of political discussion is semi-mindless recitation of pre-fabricated arguments. Taking shortcuts is natural, even for people care about logic and evidence.

There’s a world of people who craft commonly used political arguments and they aren’t known for their scrupulousness. That’s why many of the arguments we all hear—and likely some of the ones we make — involve one or another form of rhetorical sophistry.

Arguments can leave out key facts. They can make subtle logical missteps. They can surreptitiously redirect the argument to territory more friendly to the redirector, among many other sins.

Using logical fallacies doesn’t discredit a person. It doesn’t even discredit a position. But, it does invalidate an argument, and it’s important to understand how and why. A few examples. I’ll add more:

Ad Hominem (at the person)

The insults I mentioned earlier. Like many fallacies, it’s a form of misdirection. Rather than defend one’s position with evidence and argument, the ad hominem user ridicules his interlocutor. Call it out. Insist on sticking to the matter at hand.

Whataboutism

Rather than confront a charge, what whataboutist makes an apparantly similar but unrelated countercharge — ”Ahh, but, what about…” — aimed at a political figure, institution, or argument the original charge-maker esteems. Repeat the charge. Demand a response.

Strawman

A counterargument to an argument you never made, usually a caricature that’s easier for your interlocutor to refute. Insist on a response to your real argument.

Correlation does not imply causation

Just because two events happened together or in sequence, that doesn’t prove the earlier event caused the later one. A claim of causation requires evidence of a causal mechanism.

Democracy is in the @ replies and awkward dinners

Somewhere along the line, a lot of people decided it wasn’t polite to discuss politics if there was a risk of radical disagreement. It’s not a crazy idea, but its consequences are pernicious. People who agree with one another talk amongst themselves and work them each other into a lather. The more it goes on, the harder it gets to bridge the divide between diverged groups.

Radical disagreement is a lost art. It’s time we re-learn it.

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Reporting on propaganda and media manipulation online

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Ariel Stulberg

Ariel Stulberg

Media reporter

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