How to Talk Politics and Not Sound Like a Buffoon
Guy in a Liquor Store: Y’hear about the Northwest thing?
Gal in a Liquor Store: Yeah. Geeze. Leave it to Obama to let someone like that on the plane.
Guy: I hear he got on in Amsterdam.
Gal: Figures. Them guys know nuthin’ about bein’ safe.
Guy: I tell ya, thing’s’d be diff’rent if we were in charge.
I don’t have much of an interest in politics, but I do have an interest in hearing people talk politics. It’s interesting to me how passionately people can believe in something they can’t make a substantial argument about. To the like-minded, the occasional insult toward the leader of the opposition is akin to the friendly backslap one drunk stranger gives another. Likewise, many a political debate is equally similar to a barroom brawl, both in violence and in the triviality of its instigation.
There’s a way to debate politics cordially, even productively, and what follows is a few observations as to how one can go about doing so. Thoughts are numbered for ease of referral. This is likely by no means comprehensive.
1. Prove It
Before making a claim, ask yourself if what you are about to state can be proven—that’s not to mean whether you can prove it, but whether it can be proven at all. People can make false claims, because they can be shown as such; it’s much more dubious to say something no one can argue against and that you cannot argue for. For example, compare the statements, “Obama said, ‘Yes, we can!’” and, “Obama gives hope to America,”: The first statement can at least be either confirmed or denied; the second cannot: One cannot dispute the vague claim of “giving hope” And so such a statement is meaningless and impedes any useful debate. Worse yet, statements of this type reflect poorly on the speaker’s clarity of thought.
2. It’s Not a Challenge
Or at least it shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, it seems to most people that arguing against their politics is no different from insulting their beloved mother. I think this is likely borne of the large importance one’s politics play in one’s identity, and so to attack one’s politics is to attack the person themselves. I as much as anyone am scared of having the things I most believe in disproven, but that shouldn’t prevent me from listening to the differing opinions of others (and, occasionally, I do). To paraphrase a point from John Stuart Mill, arguing one’s beliefs will either strengthen them, if the argument is unconvincing, or replace them with a superior alternative.
3. Switch Off the Radio
The insight of political pundits, at least I find, is almost nonexistent. The emphasis seems to be far more on delivery than debate. Listening to a few of the leading pundits—Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Ed Schultz, Paul Krugman, I’m tempted include Jon Stewart among them as well—it’s their attitudes that stand out more than their analyses. While conservatives tend to be more optimistic than liberals, both treat politics as the battleground for good versus evil, and, perhaps worse, both are more concerned with vanquishing evil rather than promoting good.
And keep in mind that pundits are paid by hours and words, not by the number of good arguments they make.
4. What Do You Think About…
I believe that many of us are able to accurately guess the political leanings of others; not only that, but able to further guess (though perhaps not as accurately) at the passion with which they hold their beliefs. When I see someone in tattered clothes, long hair, and decked in hemp accessories, I generally assume they’re fairly liberal. However, if I’m engaged in a conversation with them, I’ll try to confirm that assumption by asking their opinion on a number of issues (if that’s the kind of conversation we’re having). The reason is the love people have for discussing their opinions far exceeds their love for the opinions themselves. Part of the reason the Socratic method works so well is that, even though you may think your opponent the most base of idiots, and vice versa, a demonstrated willingness to listen and at least appear interested in what they have to say is the first step toward sounding not buffoonish.
5. They’re Human Beings.
Before anything else, though remember that your opponents, whether in a personal debate or ruling on a national scale are creatures of the same flesh and blood as you. As tempted as I am to write off everyone with differing beliefs from myself as minions of Satan and/or Natalie Portman’s acting coach, I do have to recognize that they, and by nature I, am subject to errors in judgment as well, and the best any of us can hope for is to acknowledge that, be willing to hear others out, and agree that Natalie Portman is a poor actress…but probably a decent human being.