How To Talk Politics In 2020 (And Still Remain Friends)

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How To Talk Politics In 2020 (And Still Remain Friends)

Words by Mr Oliver Burkeman

29 July 2020

Perhaps I’m being unduly nostalgic, but it seems like there was a time, a few years ago, when hanging out with friends or extended family didn’t entail the constant risk that the conversation might drift towards some highly charged political or social issue, leading either to vociferous argument or awkward mumbles and silence. In any case, things aren’t that way any more. We’re living through history with a capital H – Brexit, Mr Donald Trump, the #MeToo movement, climate change, Black Lives Matter, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and more besides – which means that, all too often, what might have been a pleasant (though appropriately socially distanced) drink or dinner gets swiftly bogged down in disagreement.

You don’t have to choose between a stand-up row and passive-aggressive evasion, though. Here’s how to confront such topics, yet still remain friends.

01. Talk face to face

As you’ve presumably noticed, there are many ways in which social media makes life worse. But one of them is that we freely interact there in ways we’d never dream of doing in person, an effect psychologists term online disinhibition. By contrast, when we’re meeting offline, or even via video call, we’re attuned, without consciously realising it, to countless non-verbal cues. These include facial micro-expressions signalling, for example, the absence of hostile intent, or the fact that you’re being ironic. Indeed, neuroscientists have established that there’s a distinct area of the brain dedicated specifically to face-to-face interaction. And senior diplomats have long insisted on conducting their most important negotiations that way. It helps separate the act of confronting someone’s ideas or positions, which you may feel obliged to do, from any sense that you’re confronting them.

02. Beware the backfire effect

It’s a classic finding from social psychology that people rarely respond well to being lectured on why they’re wrong. Instead, according to some studies, they cling even more vigorously to the belief that’s being challenged. Which means that reciting data in support of your views on, say, mask wearing or climate change could actually push them farther away from agreeing with you. “Researchers have found that people’s brains react to opposing views as if they were being chased by a bear,” says Ms Kate Murphy, author of You’re Not Listening. In addition, “the primitive brain interprets a difference of opinion as abandonment – being left alone and unprotected in the wilderness – so outrage and fear take over”. Instead, focus on asking questions. You’ll gain a better understanding of the other person’s views and may encourage them to confront flaws in their reasoning.

03. Find common ground

It’s a common stance, these days, that if a friend holds a problematic view, you have a duty, as a decent human being, to call them out on it. When it comes to the most extreme kinds of bigotry, that’s probably correct. (Although why are you friends with such people to begin with?) In many other cases, however, argues the political scientist Dr Robert B Talisse, author of Overdoing Democracy, both friendship and the good of society are better served by being willing to set differences aside. “If we want such conversations to be productive, we need there to be some basis for maintaining friendly, peaceable relations with those with whom we disagree,” he argues. “Yet when we allow our political views to define the whole of our social identities, there’s no longer any basis upon which to sustain healthy relations with those who do not share our politics.” In other words, if your childhood best friend’s a Brexiteer, but you voted Remain, it’s fine to talk football or favourite films rather than Europe. If instead, you treat every friendship first and foremost as an opportunity to school other people in your moral outlook, you won’t be healing social divisions, you’ll be exacerbating them and the views you find objectionable will only spread.

04. Validate the underlying fear

At the very root of virtually any viewpoint, no matter how obnoxious, there’s some kind of understandable fear and it’s crucial to see that empathising with that fear doesn’t mean excusing the political or moral views a person holds. Thus, for example, your uncle may have some very good reason for feeling financially insecure, even if he’s wrong to scapegoat immigrants as the cause of that anxiety. “Everyone’s opinion is informed by their experience,” says Ms Murphy. “There’s a backstory to every belief. Find out what it is. The more you learn about another person, the harder it is to hold on to your animosity, even if you still strongly disagree.” Almost everyone, at some point in life, has experienced fears about their finances, the wellbeing of their family or where the world’s headed. If you can build common ground at the level of those shared fears, there’s more chance for mutual understanding to flourish.

05. Pick your battles

There are times when someone’s world view is so entrenched that you probably shouldn’t kid yourself. Dropping truth bombs on them isn’t going to change much. “What I tend to find in my work,” says Dr Joseph Uscinski, who researches conspiracy theories and the people who believe them, “is that often, people who believe a specific conspiracy theory have a broader world view in which events are controlled by conspiracies. Each specific theory is just a manifestation of that.” So there may be little point in persuading them that 9/11 wasn’t a government plot because they’ll soon just switch to believing there’s a secret plan to control the weather through toxins in jet-engine exhaust fumes. An exception to this rule, Dr Uscinski points out, is when someone’s wild beliefs pose an imminent threat to their health or that of others. If your friend believes coronavirus is a hoax, you’ll be helping him, and everyone else, if you can persuade him otherwise, even if it means enduring his theories on the moon landings for several hours instead.

06. Consider the possibility that you’re wrong

Coronavirus isn’t a hoax and systemic racism is, sadly, a reality many face. But when it comes to less cut and dried issues, it’s important to question your own sense of utter certainty. You may feel totally sure that you’re right, but then so does the person you’re arguing with. That’s why you’re arguing in the first place. Do you absolutely, positively know that your position on Brexit and its impact on the economy is the right one? Or that you’re in full possession of the facts on the environment, or police brutality? Admit it, you don’t. The point here isn’t to assume the other person is right instead. Rather, it’s to loosen your grip on the absolutism that sends conversations spinning into conflict and broken friendships. Ultimately, we’re all semi-informed and imperfect, stumbling forwards uncertainly in a radically uncertain world and we often adopt beliefs not because they’re right, but because they make us feel better. You won’t be compromising your principles if you resolve to cut everyone else a bit more slack.

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