Why Political/Religious Discussions So Often Go Wrong

Why do people get hostile when fighting about politics, religion, etc.?

The main reason: Because they take it personally. And usually this is a mistake.

It’s understandable to feel or think: “If someone assaults one of my most important values – liberty, reason, justice, faith – then it’s an attack on me personally.” In a way, it is. Because if someone disagrees with or attacks something you consider non-negotiable, it’s a real problem, at least from the perspective of reaching any mutual agreement.

But what about when someone wants the same thing as you, but believes (even erroneously) that they have a better method of getting there? What about then?

For example, what if someone said to you, “I agree that liberty is important. Freedom is everything. But there is no freedom when you’re hungry. So there has to be a welfare state.”  I have heard that hundreds of times. One man even told me once, “If we don’t have a welfare state, there will be riots in the streets. We can’t have that!” While I agree that riots in the streets are an undesirable thing, I don’t see the solution to the problem of liberty as giving into blackmail and mob rule. With the rise of terrorism, blatant corruption in government and violence at schools and routine attacks on police, isn’t that where we are now?

If you’re a strong proponent of “hands off” capitalism, severely limited government, the First and Second Amendments, private property rights and individual rights – as I am, and as most people who read this column are – then someone obviously is treading on a non-negotiable when they make such assertions.

At the same time, it’s not necessarily, automatically and always an attack on you personally. The person is simply asserting that freedom from starvation is really important. You probably agree with this much. But does freedom from starvation mean that there’s suddenly a right to steal from another, or to hire government authorities to do the stealing for them? That’s a debate human beings will ultimately have to have, if we’re ever to have a totally free economy and free society at any point in the near or distant future.

If you don’t want to fight with people about politics or related subjects, then simply don’t talk with others about those topics. But if you are prepared to discuss these subjects with anyone who disagrees, you have to give the other party the benefit of the doubt and assume he or she does not mean to attack you personally. Otherwise, you’re participating in a futile contradiction: “Anyone who disagrees with me is irrationally irredeemable, but I will still use reason to persuade them.”

The first and most important thing to assess in a debate of this kind is whether or not the other person shares even one common value with you. In politics, it might be liberty. If the person says, “I really don’t care about liberty. People are not up to the job of handling it, and we must have a rational government to do what people cannot and will not do for themselves,” then you have to be prepared to debate liberty, or else simply walk away. Even that’s a debate worth having with some people, however, and it doesn’t automatically and always mean there’s a personal attack on you.

If the person says, “I agree with you that liberty is important. But we must have certain government services to ensure that liberty remains intact,” then that’s a different debate. Again, it’s not personal, even though it’s crucially important for people to work this issue out, sooner or later.

It’s similar with more overtly philosophical subjects, like religion. Maybe you don’t believe there’s a God and your opponent does. If you want to have a discussion with this person, you’re free to offer the invitation: “Can we talk about reason versus faith?” Chances are, the person of faith will believe that reason is very important, just like you do. Where you will differ is on the consistency of applying it. You’re not likely to settle that debate, in all honesty. But having a discussion about the subject of faith versus reason can certainly be enlightening and intelligent, even if the two parties will never agree on the subject of God.

Debates about religion, politics and the like only go wrong when one or both parties take the disagreement personally. At that point, you leave the arena of an unsettled issue and start on the road of attacks. Yes, you’re better off with no kind of debate than that kind of debate – because by any rational standard, that’s not a debate. It’s just a verbal fistfight.

I wish reason had not declined so much in our culture. If it hadn’t, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now. As crucial as the preservation and restoration of liberty is for us all, the issue of restoring reason is even more important. We won’t ever have liberty without reason.

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