I’m on Facebook a lot. Like most people – no, not just Millennials. Everybody – I use it to catch up with friends. I also use it to talk about current events, and just about every time I start doing that, I’m tempted to preface what I say with an apology for inundating them with politics.
In light of the election, I started thinking a bit more about that. Why don’t people want to talk about politics? Why is it taboo in certain situations? The first and most obvious answer is that people have strong opinions about politics. It involves a number of controversial issues, most of which do not have an objectively correct answer, so we’re stuck with a group of fallible human beings making the case for imperfect solutions and sometimes liquor is involved.
Peeling away at that layer, the second reason is that disagreement makes us uncomfortable. It makes us especially uncomfortable with people we know. This is the exact opposite problem we have been talking about for the past year and a half. Most of our focus has been on the anonymity variable and how how impersonal interactions embolden people to say terrible, sometimes even threatening, things.
This is a tension I hadn’t reflected on much until now. Impersonal politics is “bad” because people tend to be uncivil and closed off when dealing with others at arms length. Personal politics is bad, because we’re confronted with value judgments – or at least value preferences – of those closest to us, and we don’t know how to reconcile that. How can our favorite uncle feel that way about immigrants? Why does my mom refer to black people as “them” or “they,” and how hurtful would it be to try and explain how and why it’s problematic? The same hurdles exist with friends and colleagues.
Given our tendency to self-sort, I think there is a defense to be made about discussing politics with friends and family. It’s very easy to cut ourselves off from people who disagree with us, and I think it’s important to feel challenged. Getting comfortable with feeling uncomfortable should ideally mean that, if we do decide a position or view is inferior or inappropriate, it’s at least because we’ve given its substance some review, and not because we immediately shied away from the gross feeling of push-back. There’s at least some measurable basis for this:
Overall, 20% of social media users say they’ve modified their stance on a social or political issue because of material they saw on social media, and 17% say social media has helped to change their views about a specific political candidate. Among social media users, Democrats – and liberal Democrats in particular – are a bit more likely than Republicans to say they have ever modified their views on a social or political issue, or on a particular political candidate, because of something they saw on social media. (Democrats and Republicans include independents and nonpartisans who “lean” toward these parties.)
Unfortunately, it seems that the majority of people haven’t had this experience, but I want to see if this is because people tend to immerse themselves in like-minded social media or if it is a generalized effect regardless of that social media’s context.
It’s important to realize the potential trade-offs as well as the assumptions I’m making. My primary assumption, which is maybe too nice an assumption, is that people stick around to listen when you start discussing politics. It could simply be that, in being candid in your views, it makes it that much clearer to the reader that they should unfriend or unfollow you, therefore adding to our personal echo chambers. If we assume some people will just shut down, we’d have to know more about how most people would, on average, respond to disagreeable points of view.
These thoughts also don’t account much for the backfire effect. Another possibility is that, in discussing politics, we only motivate people to dig into their previously held views. I’m curious as to whether continuously experiencing benevolent, constructive pushback would have a different long-term outcome, though. The linked review suggests “yes”:
So perhaps a single, credible refutation within a news article isn’t likely to convince people to change their views. But other research suggests that a constant flow of these kind of corrections could help combat misinformation. The theory is that the more frequently someone is exposed to information that goes against their incorrect beliefs, the more likely it is that they will change their views.
I’m under no illusion that talking politics will suddenly create a bipartisan utopia, but it might help with hyperpartisanship (“Those who have at least some close friends in the other party tend to feel less coldly toward people in that party than those with few friends of the opposing party.”) Additionally, we need to remember that rhetoric plays a part, and that framing an issue plays a large role to reception, rather than merely throwing facts at a wall and seeing what sticks.
My basic thought process throughout writing this is that we often treat politics as separate and apart from people. It’s become painfully evident in this election that treating people and policy as abstractions has a dehumanizing effect. If you’ve already decided the goal you’re trying to achieve, it’s likely necessary to approach this from a more academic point of view, or else you’d be bombarded by competing feelings, not all of which may be rational (as an aside, there is an argument (video) to be made that compassion, rather than empathy, is a basic building block for solving problems – a conversation for another day.) But when we ask ourselves what the efficacy is of our goal, remembering the relationship between working class people and our neighbor, or women’s healthcare and our sister, etc etc should play a role. It puts the impact of that policy into personally meaningful terms that we’ll digest differently and our internalized assumptions and associations are put to the test.
James Fallow, in his interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, spoke eloquently about the seemingly bizarre divide between how people perceived an issue within the context of the election versus the realities of their daily lives:
Because the tone of Donald Trump’s campaigning was intentionally so angry and intentionally so discontented and intentionally based on the idea that America had been taken away from its rightful possessors and needed to be restored, you might infer that’s the way it seems in daily life and many of the places that voted for him.
But very recently, for example, my wife Deb and I were in Dodge City, Kan. It’s Western Kansas. It’s a conservative part of a conservative state that reliably votes Republican. And if you ask people how they were going to vote nationally, most of them would have said they’re going to vote for Trump. But if you looked at the fabric of their daily life in that town, you would see, for example, that it’s become an almost majority Latino town now. And that people had no time for the idea of building a wall because they needed the Latino workforce for many of their industries. It’s a town that has voted a large tax increase on itself for permanent infrastructure improvements. It’s a town that has also passed a school bond issue for a school district that is largely – it’s very heavily Latino students there.
And so a – parts of the country that are voting – that voted last night for somebody whose message is we’re angry. Things are bad. We’re divided. We don’t like the other. That’s not how they actually seem most of the places you go. So I guess my – I’m trying to maintain a split-brain consciousness of recognizing that our national politics has become as extreme as we’ve now seen. And the gap between that and the on-scene reality of most of the American heartland, if you want – if you will, that we’ve been visiting.
I want to caution that I’m not advocating we should only care about things that immediately affect our inner circle. This isn’t a factor that should override all considerations, especially when we remember that some of the fears and anxieties people fear are fundamentally unfounded, as pointed out by Mr. Fallow. As I said before, I think people need to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. I do think that we should seriously reexamine our present attitudes towards politics as a no-go topic in “polite society,” and that this is especially true in a nation like the United States, whose entire political foundation rests on the pivotal assumption that we remain engaged not just with our representatives, but with each other.