The frank discussion of politics among a governed people is absolutely crucial to preserving democracy.
Bullshit. I didn’t mean a word of that … I think it’s a grand sentiment but essentially untrue. In this post I explain why nobody should discuss politics with friends, family, or other lay people.
Why do people talk about politics?
I’d guess most people who talk about politics are doing so for one of two reasons. The first reason is a simple one: to showcase their deep knowledge to others, so as to gain admiration and respect. These are, I believe, the people who advance positions their audience shares—that is, they pontificate to those who already agree with them. Sure, you might say they’re looking for a real dialogue so they can learn more and have a deeper understanding, but I doubt it. Public policy just isn’t that interesting.
A second group comprises highly opinionated people who seem to want to rile others up, and be contrarian, and dramatic, and surprising. I suppose the goal in this case is also to increase one’s influence or stature (though more through bullying than persuasion). Perhaps some of these instigators simply find this kind of discord stimulating. I can only guess.
Recently I’m getting to understand why the outcomes of polarized political dialogue are so overwhelmingly bad. Simply put, when people challenge others about politics, they tend to break all the rules of effective communication. I took a Rhetoric class in college and we studied the three main tools for advancing an argument: logos (logic); ethos (authority); and pathos (feeling). As I shall explain, discussions of politics often fall down on all three legs.
The logos (logic) problem
In courses I’ve taken on management and leadership, the most interesting thing I’ve learned is how brain chemistry affects human behavior as we react to conflict. Managers are discouraged from criticizing employees, especially in a brusque fashion. The reason, we’re advised, is that humans evolved to constantly be on the lookout for threats, and “several domains of social experience draw upon the same brain networks to maximize reward and minimize threat as the brain networks use for primary survival needs” (as explained here). Thus, we have a limbic system (i.e., lizard brain) response to being challenged, a fight-or-flight reaction, which interferes with our ability to reason: when we’re challenged like this, the “resources available for overall executive functions in the prefrontal cortex decrease.” Studies have shown that criticizing an employee lowers his or her productivity for a significant period, and that’s one reason companies want to discourage it.
Talking about politics is similar in the sense of challenging someone in a negative way. By asserting something you know a person doesn’t agree with, especially if you’re emphatic about it, you’re essentially attacking him. You can’t expect a person to react calmly and rationally to that. It is pointless to put someone on the spot and expect him to suddenly reconsider his long-held opinions or values.
My political positions are decades old, built upon a fairly basic and predictable foundation, and I am not up for debating them. If my beliefs change at all it is due to the gradual influence of a collection of professional journalistic sources that I trust, not any individual person trying to ram ideas down my throat. I am perfectly capable of evaluating a good article in terms of its rational merit—when nobody is up in my face. That’s a lot different, though, from easily engaging when somebody is sputtering doctrine. Then I would rather just roll over and disengage. This isn’t because I’m lame. It’s because I’m human and my brain chemistry is subject to the same limbic override as everyone else’s.
The ethos (authority) problem
Okay, so where challenging political discussions are concerned, rational thought is vanquished. But the problem gets worse. Much of the time, the person who wants to discuss politics has very strong opinions. These can eventually become part of a person’s self-identity, to where pursuing a political credo can become kind of a hobby. The person may seek out openly biased blogs, radio shows, or podcasts or whatever, having decided that mainstream news is “fake” in the sense of slyly pretending to be non-partisan. The problem with these non-mainstream media is that they target, select, and nurture those loyal readers, viewers, and/or listeners whose natural skepticism can be made to decrease over time until it all but vanishes. The student pundits, having decided they’ve found the only trustworthy authorities, practically decide in advance to believe whatever they’re told by these sources.
This in turn changes their media consumption experience such that they’re not looking to actually tease apart complexity and appreciate nuance … they’re just looking for the punch lines, the basic talking points, the gist. This further undermines the role logic could have played in conveying their messages—that is, because these people weren’t themselves convinced through reason, reason doesn’t form the foundation of their arguments. Thus, when they set out to challenge those who don’t share their beliefs, they subconsciously encounter an obstacle: they themselves accepted their doctrine based on the (presumed) authority of their favored pundit, but the person they’re talking to won’t acknowledge this authority. A liberal blathering to a conservative won’t get anywhere saying, “According to this thing I heard on NPR,” any more than a conservative blathering to a liberal could gain traction by quoting Fox News. And yet, ethos is the basis of the arguer’s position, so they can’t just abandon it. So they cite sources very vaguely, talking about “top scientists” or “the guys who really get it,” or simply “the experts.” Of course, citing an unnamed authority is rhetorically useless.
The pathos problem
So when logos is obliterated and ethos falls down, what does the political crusader do? Well, for one thing, he or she gets frustrated, and thus his or her temper heats up. Meanwhile, stirred up humans have the tendency to use volume, emphasis, and repetition to get their points across, particularly when this is the literary or oratorical style their highly opinionated sources are constantly modeling. This style of persuasion can occasionally be powerful, like in the hands of a master orator (think MLK). But this only works when the audience already agrees with the speaker. Pathos (and its cousin, the one-sided argument) is useful when you’re trying to whip a crowd into a lather, to galvanize them into action, but it’s not very helpful when you’re trying to change somebody’s mind about something.
Meanwhile, most people simply aren’t master orators, and their pathos is a blunt, ineffective tool. Too much of the time such talk comes across as harsh, unwelcome braying. The listener feels attacked and may wonder where this aggression is even coming from. This of course compounds the lizard brain response: the unwelcome pathos obliterates our ability to rationally weigh our opponent’s words.
What does this scenario feel like for me? It’s a sense of horror at the conversational morass I’ve suddenly stepped in, and dread at how long I might be stuck there. And this scenario isn’t limited to traditional party politics. Due to the bizarre politicalization of the COVID-19 pandemic, most discussion of vaccination, masking, and other realms of public health policy becomes as annoying and unwelcome as an election year partisan diatribe.
You might reasonably wonder why I’m blogging about this instead of just telling certain people to bug off when they try to involve me in a political discussion. After all, most of my readers will never have the opportunity to talk to me about politics (or anything else). The reason is, I want everybody possible to understand how this kind of talk can damage their relationships with friends and/or family.
How? Well, I’ve already mentioned how frustrating and pointless it is to argue about this crap with someone whose prefrontal cortex has been temporarily crippled (i.e., anyone who doesn’t agree with you). Either this person takes the bait and gets into an acrimonious debate with you, or they sort of go limp, and make little noises like “hmmm,” and “oh,” or whatever, hoping they can minimize the duration of the dialogue and somehow guide the conversation back to safe ground. Out of tact, they sort of humor the antagonist. This might be the saddest scenario of all, because having to humor someone is the opposite of enjoying and preserving closeness.
What makes our friends our friends, and what determines whether we’re close to this or that family member? It’s rapport. This is why close friends and family have great conversations: they get each other and there is a huge reservoir of goodwill built up. Trust tends to grow as well, which is what makes our friends and family so valuable when we do reach out for help or advice.
This foundation of goodwill can see a relationship through difficult times, which is a godsend, because sometimes it’s appropriate to challenge those close to us. For example, if I were to worry that a good friend of mine were drinking too much, I might take it as my responsibility to try to intervene somehow. Of course I would have to proceed carefully, knowing that this would be a very delicate matter. It might take all the built-up trust and rapport we have for the friendship to withstand such an intervention, but I would have reason to hope that friend would respect my intentions (perhaps upon reflection, when the grip of his amygdala had relaxed). But why burn up rapport frivolously, just wasting it, by throwing a political harangue in someone’s face? If you have fifty topics you could bring up to your friend or family member—most of which celebrate what the two of you have in common—why on earth would you choose politics, a topic that is either boring or divisive?
Why even indulge strong opinions?
This brings me to my final point, which is that I cannot see why anyone should be immersing him/herself in highly opinionated political news to begin with. What is the point? What actions would any of us ever take based on all this information? I suppose there’s some attraction in the idea that once you’re versed in these ideas you can share them with others, and thus bring those people out of darkness … but as I’ve tried to make clear, I think the chances of this playing out successfully are pretty remote.
There’s this widespread idea that to be good citizens we need to be well informed. Well, perhaps that’s true, but there’s probably a such thing as being too informed, and there’s certainly a such thing as being too polarized, and too stirred up, and too influenced—or harassed—by those with an axe to grind. I saw this bumper sticker that said, “IF YOU’RE NOT ANGRY, YOU’RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION!” I hate that. It’s ungrateful. It’s suggesting that the person lucky enough to live in a rich country and own a car and have the right to free speech is a bad citizen if he doesn’t go around in a constant state of anger. I think if the bumper sticker has to exist, it should say, “IF YOU ARE ANGRY, YOU’RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION!” That is, if you’re angry in some general way, you’re not grateful for how good we really have it. Think of the asshole responsible for this graffiti:
Too much news
How much news is enough? Well, I think we should be sufficiently aware of the goings on in the world to be able to react when necessary. This means using less water during a drought, not traveling during a blizzard, and having enough information to participate in democracy every two years. It means satisfying our curiosity about things. I don’t think news should be a hobby, and it shouldn’t be a way to become a mouthpiece. If somebody wants the news, I let him get it himself. I don’t rebroadcast anything unless I’m recommending an article to somebody because I think he’ll appreciate and enjoy it.
I really believe that too much news, and the wrong kind of news (i.e., that which is infused with opinion and especially that which is soaked in vitriol) is bad for one’s health. When we are made aware of a terrible situation (e.g., the end of democracy, the world being doomed, the bad guys winning), and we have no means to change the situation, we feel helpless and hopeless. This is no way to live.
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People differentiates between our “circle of influence” vs. our “circle of concern.” Below is their schematic. The idea is that we should spend most of our mental energy on what we can influence; for example, the rapport we have with others. We should avoid spending too much energy on the circle of concern, because that’s where we’re largely helpless.
It’s possible to expand one’s circle of influence slightly, but that’s a lot of work. I mean, honestly, if you hate this or that politician, what can you really do about it, beyond the one vote you can cast against him? And when you wield that one vote, couldn’t you have decided on it without spending umpteen hours fanning the flames of your discontent? And what good is complaining about this stuff to family and friends? What do we expect them to do about it? Drop everything and join a campaign? (This isn’t a bad idea, of course, but if your friend were to decide to commit to this, it surely wouldn’t be because of anything you said.) So why immerse ourselves in this crap? There’s no good reason. Ignore the highly opinionated columnists, radio host, and podcasters. Don’t let them have their way with you.
I don’t read much news, and to the extent that my favorite magazine has become more political in the last couple of decades, I spend less time with it—not because I disagree with its writers’ views, but because I just don’t care. There is a world of better reading out there: novels, short stories, memoirs, general interest nonfiction, humor writing, all kinds of good stuff. It does not make me an irresponsible citizen to read all that instead of the news. It makes me a happier, more interesting person, and it mitigates the stress in my life. And when I talk to somebody, I want more of the same: curiosity, fascination, wonder, humor. I don’t want discord, and I don’t want to have to humor anybody.