Fighting Over Politics: Version 2016

I keep hearing the question: How to weather political differences with friends and associates, given this combative presidential election year?

Then I read this at Psychology Today online, by Susan Heitler Ph.D.:

The impulse to convince others of the rightness of your view and the wrongness of theirs gets all the stronger for everyone when the issue feels like one of importance.  The outcome of Presidential elections in [particular] is likely to have strong impacts on people’s lives, i.e., on their financial status, on how much government programs will either help or hinder them, on whether our citizens will be safe from physical danger with regard to guns, terrorism, international enemies, etc.

Some people have more, and some less, ability to allow others to be different.  This ability takes patience.  It takes willingness to give the other person the benefit of the doubt, that is, to assume that there is something valid in their viewpoint as well as in yours.  This ability also rests on ability to keep your emotions in the calm zone.

It’s always important to listen. If the other person isn’t worth listening to, then it’s not worth having the discussion.

Is it worth it to have a discussion/fight/dialogue over the election if you know the other person’s vote will not change? That’s really up to you. But it’s often helpful to get it right out there: “Look. You’re not going to change my mind and I’m not going to change yours on who to vote for. But maybe we’ll get a few new ideas from each other.” Again, if it’s insincere to say this much, then don’t say it. But then you probably should change the subject, too.

This year, I encounter just as much (if not more) heated exchanges over “Trump vs. Libertarian Gary Johnson” or “Trump vs. none-of-the-above” as I do over “Trump vs. Clinton.” Politically, the dynamics are different. But psychologically, the dynamics are the same. Disagreement is disagreement.

Dr. Heitler points out that some are more tolerant of differences than others. That’s true. But this tolerance arises from a deeper conviction and serenity that you cannot forcibly change others’ minds, and that it wouldn’t be useful or desirable if you could. One of the reasons I’m against the positions of most politicians (especially Democrats) is they place such great trust and faith in the power of force to shape, mold or manipulate people into doing what they think people should be doing. That’s the question I want Hillary Clinton supporters, and even many Donald Trump supporters, to answer for me. By what right does government force people to take actions against their will? And how do you think this will really accomplish what you want? Nazis and Communists failed in their efforts to mold others to their will. Why should today’s watered-down advocates of state force be any different? I’m not looking to fight about this so much as to see what people’s thinking on the subject is.

If you go into a discussion on the premise, “I must change his mind…I must change his mind!” then it logically follows you’ll be much more intolerant and hostile than if you entered the discussion on a rational assumption. Example: “I probably won’t change his mind. But at least I got my point-of-view out there.”

Before entering such a discussion, it’s crucial to think about two things. One, “What’s most important to me in choosing a candidate?” Two, “What’s most important to the other person?” For example, the other person might say to me, “Having a clean and safe environment is most important. That’s why I’m voting Democrat.” This provides an opportunity to talk about what’s the best way to ensure a clean and safe environment — private ownership or government regulation and ownership. I know what my position is on the subject. Chances are, the other side has not considered it. If it’s worthwhile to me to have a discussion about this issue, rather than fighting over personal traits of the candidates themselves (both highly flawed this year, as most will concede), then I will do so. If it doesn’t seem worthwhile for the other person to talk about it, then we can move on to something else and drop it.

Particularly this year, it’s crucial to keep the focus on the issues. It’s hard when neither of the candidates will do so during these so-called candidate debates. But it’s the only way to remain sane. You frankly have no business entering a conversation about politics unless you first know where you stand on the issues, and why. Civilizations ultimately rise or fall on the issues, more than the players and the rulers themselves.

Emotions arise because of what’s important to us. If things start to escalate, it’s easy to feed into the problem by resorting to personal attacks. But that’s a dead-end street, and an indication the discussion has already gone wrong. Better to abort than continue. The moment someone attacks me personally for my views, discussion is over. It’s worse than pointless to continue, because it’s no longer a political or intellectual discussion you’re having.

The best antidote to personal attacks are the issues. “I can see helping the poor is an important subject for you. I’m certainly not against that. But have you considered the benefits, efficiency and compassion of private charity rather than government help?” As a trained social worker and therapist, I have years of experience talking to people who are on government assistance of one kind or another. I know how demoralizing, bureaucratic, and sometimes downright mean and nasty government bureaucracy can be. Why can’t all charity be private? And how is it charity when people are compelled to donate money (i.e., taxes) to faceless, often inefficient and inhumane bureaucracies? These are questions I’d like to put out there. If it changes someone’s mind, wonderful. But I’ve done something with my time if I at least put it out there.

To some people, this seems too nice. “I’d rather attack.” Criticism has its place. There’ s nothing wrong with pointing out the flaws in the candidate in the strongest terms possible. “Hillary Clinton is a criminal.” I’m not afraid to say it, because the FBI’s own evidence supports it. But if you think criticism and hostility alone will have an impact, then you’re wrong. Ultimately, human beings must know why it’s important to be FOR something rather than against it.

What’s really important, in the end, is to (1) get your point across on the issues and (2) always remember what’s most important to you, and asking the other person what’s most important to him or her. If you’re unwilling or unable to do these things, then you’re just fighting for the sake of fighting. If that’s your way of releasing stress, maybe that’s OK. But don’t call it a discussion or a debate.

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