Talking politics doesn’t have to be divisive

Talking politics doesn’t have to be divisive

US President Donald Trump at a re-election campaign rally in Orlando, Florida. (Reuters)

In many parts of the world, families and friends are struggling with how to talk to each other about political and cultural issues on which they strongly disagree. Many wonder whether it is worth trying.

Many countries have experienced increasing political and social polarization. Polling suggests that places such as the US, Europe, India and Brazil are facing this phenomenon. While divides have long existed, recent events have sharpened them. Donald Trump’s presidency in the US, Narendra Modi’s rise to power in India, and the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have highlighted and hardened deep political and cultural differences. In Europe, centrist parties have lost support, while parties further to the right and left have gained influence.

There are many reasons for this increasing polarization, including changes in media environments, but two trends run through all these countries. They are experiencing deep disagreements over what their national identity should be: Americans, Indians, Brazilians and Europeans are divided regarding the fundamental nature of what it means to be American, Indian, Brazilian or French, British and so forth. A second trend is that many of these countries have influential leaders who portray political disagreements in terms of a war that must be won, rather than as viewpoints to be debated and discussed.

In such a context, it is very hard to talk honestly and respectfully about significant political and cultural disagreements. People often feel that their identities are at stake. When people identify strongly as a conservative or liberal, nationalist or globalist, etc., they can feel attacked when someone disagrees with their perspective. Group identities also play a strong role and can make divisions based on religion, ethnicity and race especially susceptible to polarization.

Partly because disagreements that feel like they threaten our identities are so intense, a polarized environment can feel exhausting. Some people feel that they must frequently, strongly assert their views because they believe that they are in a form of warfare — that they are dealing with issues that are fundamental to their well-being and their values. To other people, engaging in political discussions in such an environment is exhausting and pointless.

Human beings need social connections and support, and discussing politics in a polarized environment can feel like it threatens the family, friendship, professional and neighborhood networks that allow us to survive and thrive in the world. Many people avoid talking about controversial subjects in order to avoid risking those relationships.

More simply, some people do not want to be challenged. It feels good to be right, and many people choose to discuss politics only with those they agree with, enjoying the feeling that other people reinforce their opinions.

It is necessary to see political opponents as fellow citizens who can be disagreed with and not as enemies in a war.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Given all of these reasons — and more — why should anyone bother discussing difficult political issues with people who disagree with them? Though difficult, it is important to try. All types of countries benefit from having citizens who are capable of discussing important political and social issues without resorting to forcibly imposing their views. In democracies, it is essential to accept that the “other side” will sometimes be in power, so it is necessary to see political opponents as fellow citizens who can be disagreed with and not as enemies in a war.

For those who want to reach across political divides, it can be difficult to know where to start. Fortunately, there is a new book available to help people do just that: “I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening),” by Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers. The first part of the book suggests taking time to understand our own views better, including setting aside the idea that politics is about “my team” winning, considering why we feel strongly about certain issues and evaluating whether our politics reflect our personal values. The second part of the book offers ideas on how to engage with people from the other side of a political divide. Some of the recommendations include assuming good intentions in other people, being curious about other people’s perspectives, widening our media diet so that we are not only consuming news from sources that align with our views, and accepting that the world is complex and requires a nuanced approach.

I asked one of the authors, Silvers, what she thought were some of the most important recommendations for someone trying to engage in difficult political discussions. “The first thing is to set an intention for the conversation that is based on strengthening the relationship instead of persuading them or scoring points,” she said. “If you frame the conversation as something other than a debate, it changes the tenor of the conversation.”

Silvers added that what makes their approach unique “is that we didn’t set out to write a book about how to make others agree with you. The point is personal growth and enrichment. If you’re always working on yourself through the conversation, then you’ll have a bigger social impact than if you’re not working on yourself.”

Political views are very important, but if we allow our passions about political issues to deepen divides and narrow our own perspectives, everyone loses. There are times when it is not right to discuss politics — when we need to focus on other aspects of life or when talking politics is too painful. Still, if a few friends can reach across the growing divides toward each other for respectful, honest conversations; it might help start a healing process that many societies badly need.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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