Privilege Blog

Some Simple Points On Civil Political Discussions, Or, Saturday Morning at 8:29am

Last night I went out to dinner with my mother, stepfather, and some friends of theirs. Towards the end of the evening, talk turned to politics. My mother is a lifelong New England Democrat. Her husband, a newly fledged US citizen, is not. And that, my dear friends, is all I’ll say about that.

I do not discuss politics here, nor will I. This is because I loathe talk of politics altogether. Politics itself are necessary. Talk of politics in this country has become well-nigh impossible.

Why? Here’s my theory. We have no proof of comparative effectiveness for most political and economic systems. Politics and economics are like the weather, and earthquakes. We have bits of data here and there. We want that data to predict important outcomes, but we have to acknowledge that our calculation capacity just isn’t there yet. Not in any comprehensive way.

When people are faced with decisions, lacking knowledge, they tend to revert to emotion as the directive engine. I suspect that most political beliefs stem from innate feelings about how innately good people are or are not. That we take the bits and pieces of data, spawned by a study here and a study here, add them to a mosaic tricked out with anecdotes and personal experience, and construct personal Watts Towers of political opinion. Each our own. Each our own.

This does not create the best environment for rational discussion.

Now add in television and radio networks freed from the requirement to present both sides to any question. Want impassioned? You got it. Finish with a healthy dose of the Internet, where you can make highly aggressive arguments against someone without ever having to call that person on the telephone when your son wants to play with their daughter. The usual community imperatives for cooperation, gone.

Complex systems, outcomes that affect those we love, lack of comprehensive data, growing venues for irresponsible diatribes, and, and, then it’s election time. Heaven help us all.

I’ve taken to testing my political thoughts, my “Why can’t we just do this?” questions on my sister. She’s a researcher in social welfare,  familiar with the ways policies play out out the ground, and with the difference between what makes sense, and what can actually be enacted. I find her voice quite helpful in focusing my positions.

I hope we always take the time to look for data, to listen and speak with respect to those who hold other views, to act with kindness. Even more important in political discussion. Should we fail, collectively, as November approaches and 2012 looms, you may find me under my table, rocking back and forth, muttering, “Does it really have to be like this?”

I am very proud of and honored by the Privilege readership. I believe I can count on all of you to continue to speak with the remarkable civility and intelligence you’ve demonstrated for the past several years. I thank you deeply in advance.

44 Responses

  1. Oh, if only the worst offenders would read this! I get so tired of all the haranguing! I want to go back to the days when a Tea Party meant scones and sugar lumps! xo molly

  2. A coworker with whom I carpool most days and I discuss this a lot. Our contention is that a) Reality TV and b) elevation of Conflict to Entertainment and c) devolution of News to Entertainment have created an environment where Conflict Sells (e.g. drives ratings) and people shouting over each other are no longer regarded as immature and boorish, but rather, examples of normal discourse. I’m holding my breath for the pendulum swing back in the other direction.

  3. We’re all so diverse in America now. That frightens some people. They have to be emotional about it. Let’s show them how to be calm and reasonable.

  4. Couldn’t agree more. I used to be very politically active – no more. I no longer believe that one party, or one person has all the answers, or maybe any answer. The economics and other problems of this world are so incredibly complex, that I don’t believe anyone, no matter how “schooled” they are in economic or any other theory have anything that’s actually proven to say, what they “spout” is “theory”, nothing more. And then people follow someone that they’d like to believe has real answers and regurgitate them at dinner – not fun anymore at all. I think it’s frightening for us all to admit that we don’t really know the answers to very frightening and complex questions.

  5. Lisa, once again you are spot-on! I was brought up in a family who always had dinner together, my father taught us the skill of seeing the other side of any issue. Empathy. Concern. Real thought. I definitely have opinions and if I believe I know all the facts correctly, I don’t mind sharing them. Here in Texas women have always spoken out, in a nice way. But, to argue, be angry, overtalk someone is hideous. I’ve discovered we must read, listen, watch everything we have available and then let our own brains decide.
    If more people did this I believe we would have a much better informed populace. Just saying…

  6. Wow. Yes, yes, yes, and yes (that may be too many for your points, but I just can’t help myself).

    I love the way you test your thoughts, and I agree with you that we don’t know anything (of course that doesn’t mean we should quit trying to learn, anyway, as I know you know).

    I do not believe that any one political party or any one candidate has all the answers, and I admit that I was not raised “in” any particular political party. It seems to me that unwavering, unquestioning party allegiance is one of the many factors that makes *conversation* about politics challenging. It’s presuming that a particular group of people has all the right answers. As much as I actually do wish, at some level, that were true, I agree with you–I don’t think it is.

    I wish I could talk about politics with some members of my family, as it’s actually something I’m going into, professionally, and so is an important part of my life. Unfortunately this is just not possible–at least not now.

  7. Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this. I only wish the people that need to read this will read this.

    My basic life philosophy is to assume positive intent from others. This is very important (and not always easy) to remember during election season. Here’s hoping we won’t need that table for shelter!

  8. LOL with the heartiest of laughter, I will be under that table with you!!! I agree completely with your perspective, adding a healthy dose of self-directed ‘it’s all smoke and mirrors you dope’ and ‘how can you be so fooled by nit-wits?!?’. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

  9. I have the same feeling regarding politics in general (in any country). I hate the rethoric directed to attacking a person/ a party with disregard for the ideas. I would also join you under the table, I guess, repeating to myself “wouldn’t it be easier of we all just really listened to each other?”

  10. I know how you feel.

    I had two couples I really like over. One fellow is “Fellow” at a well-known conservative think-tank. He holds a Ph.d in Foreign Affairs and is their “expert” in a part of the world that is of vital importance to our nation. While I do not agree with everything he says I’m always interested to hear what he says because I know him to be intelligent and well-informed.

    The other couple contained a Rapid Liberal, someone I knew had devoted hours to working on the most recent Presidential campaign, an JD and no less deserving of my respect. The conversation could hardly get going before RL would interrupt and launch into emotional yammerings.

    The good hostess does not lean across the table and wack guests to make them be quiet so other guests can finish their sentence!

    It’s the stuff of legendary hostesses to know what to do or say to get guests to settle down enough to participate in adult conversations. I am not one.

  11. Amen, Lisa. I suppose this reveals my naïveté, but I’m often surprised at the amount of schadenfreude and vitriol fostered on the Internet. I suspect you’re right that the apparent “anonymity” leads to a suspension of social imperatives/graces.

  12. Well said Lisa…it’s very tricky business talking politics now a days in a level headed way. The way the media has turned towards using itself as an extension to jab the other side has hurt honest debate and has spurred the ’emotions’ you mentioned into a frenzied feeding trough of confusing ideas, instead of factual ones. Who cares about those when you can get such high ratings through competetive and childish discourse.
    It’s nice that you have someone such as your sister to chat about it all with in an easy fashion…that way you can breath and enjoy your dinner at the same time, from above the table.
    xo J~

  13. Ah, from your blog to everyone’s ears, may it be so. Your description of some of those things contributing to the dilemma surrounding discourse on the topic is nothing less than brilliant. So much so it was read aloud in the car off the iPhone. Twice. Someday I would like to write like you.

    Until then perhaps we could all try to use fewer labels in reference to individuals and groups, and spend less time listening to argue, more time listening to learn.

  14. “When people are faced with decisions, lacking knowledge, they tend to revert to emotion as the directive engine.” I think this to be very true, and as you argue, completely frustrating to rational debate and discussion to politics (and other topics as well). So glad you chose to keep this blog civil, graceful and eloquent.

  15. Amen. And yet, in the face of earthquakes and weather, no one feels there is anyone to blame or anything to be done. In the face of economics, everyone feels there must have been something that could have been done, and someone to blame. We made this mess, and must somehow blindly fumble our way back out all together.

    I am already under my table more often than not. Wish we could all sit down over a shared meal and talk like adults about friendship, community, personal responsibility, and the merits of green beans versus broccoli, without all the kerfuffle, and the Blue Lake party schisming from the Haricot Vert party over ideological differences.

  16. This says it all to me. Politics have ended long-time friendships; and horrible losses.

    And, as you explain so well; much of this is a result of the internet.

    I have decided not to discuss politics with any of my close friends. I do not believe I know enough, nor am privy to objective information, nor have interest enough to argue about anything. And, other than my vote; nothing else I can do! (except , perhaps, excessive letters to the editor of my local paper!)

    I have just decided to live my life, love my life and its many gifts…and give back as much as I can to my family; my grandchildren, my pets, my wild animals I nurture and protect. And continue to do the work that I love! and support the causes I care about as much as I can!

    That is it!

  17. Meanwhile the Austrian treasury minster compared the the affluent minority of our society and the persecution of the jews before second world war, because everyone was envying their money and we and in the end we had war.
    Excuse me? As if there had been only rich jews? And how could she compare the upperclass with the pogrom just because the socialist parties speak out that they want more social equity in this unjust society? Pffffh. Opps, Iam talking about politics!
    btw: there is a saying: money, health, religion, politics: do not touch those subjects when you sit around a table with your friends/family. I extended the four by fitness.
    I hope you had a nice evening with your close ones.
    What did you sister say? Maybe you wrote it between the lines and I did not get it?

  18. I’ve taken to an observation post of sorts when strident political discourse opens fire, many times this happens right here at home since I, like your mother, married an ardent Other. Oh how I want to do defuse his political ardor [he paces and gestures while ardoring], rebalance my BP [he paces and gestures with ardor in front of me, back and forth], establish domestic calm [bring the man’s ardor down a few levels], while giving him the courtesy of listening with eye contact. We’re still evolving as I’ve only been married to this lovely, marvelous gentleman 2 years.

    My latest effort is to imagine a clipboard in my lap; as he is unloading vitriol, I imagine I’m doing a paper on the origin of various passions in homo sapiens. He becomes a subject while he is ranting, I am paying attention with eye contact while mentally taking notes “….well, remember his father was a highly decorated Marine, that’s got to be underneath some cerebral plaque somewhere in there…” and “…well, remember this is a self-made man, his parents thought so little of him as to fund older brother’s education while cutting second brother off completely….” and “….well, remember, this is a rabid take-responsibility-for-yourself man in his career-long clinical practice, it doesn’t shut off at 5pm” and so forth. Obviously, the objective is to value and understand the essential man while he is in full ardor, pacing. I’m thinking if I cultivate this same kind of observation detachment, it might work out and about as well.

    Lest you think I don’t look in the mirror while holding my own clipboard, I do. “….well, this is a woman coming from a non-verbal family culture, she was taught to silence herself when things got noisy with conversation, she was sent to her room for expressing an emotion, she was taught to implode silently rather than explode noisily.”

    This is too long…..but what a great topic and conversation you opened.

  19. You are a measured thinker on the matter. Unfortunately, too often real thinkers go into things believing that both sides have legitimate arguments that are equally well supported, that the debate is fair in procedure, and that a real thinking person could go either direction after collecting all the facts.

    Unfortunately, we are not in such a situation. One side IS lying and putting out deliberate misinformation. It is an actual nightmare, and those who are too polite or sensitive to pay deep attention are only going to allow evil to triumph because we don’t get them to vote it down.

    Here’s a good assessment of the situation that every thinking person would do well to read:

    Maybe thinkers on the “other” side are unclear on what’s really going on! I don’t think they would support this type of evil if they knew. I have seen all of this coming since about 1980, but nobody listened. Remember what they say about repeating history, and be very afraid. :(

  20. I appreciate the call for civility. I find it amazing that so many of us are incapable of civil dialogue on subjects where we disagree. This concerns me mostly due to the idea that a thriving democracy, or republic, depends on public debate and civic participation by the general public.

    If we completely lose this ability, or if we have indeed lost it, we are lost. I love talk of politics especially considering the idea that ideas must be discussed to be worked through or considered, and true freedom comes when me and the other regular folk can have a voice… it should be our inside voice.

    Sadly it seams practiced cordiality is rare in modern America.

    Partisanship is the new racism. Each side likes to generalize and demonize the other… despite fact or reality.

  21. But Brohammas…it really is not equally bad on both sides. The link I posted discusses this a bit.

  22. re the poem you’re searching via Twitter. Louise Gluck, possibly? She, very much published in New Yorker over the past decade or so. I love a search, Prevention magazine says a deep internet search tops their list of cognition boosters. Lemmeatit! More later if I find something. All best, F

    1. I find the political climate in the the States right now horrifying. The last place anyone who believes in a just, fair and equitable democracy should be is under the table. It seems to me that democracy is something that the middle is going to have to fight for.

  23. You are correct. And the negative political climate will take everyone down with it, if we cannot, as a society, find a way towards working together with civility.

  24. A valuable and timely message. If only those who really need to read them would heed your advice! We have to do our best to educate ourselves, make the best informed decisions we can, and yes, discourse civilly on these issues. Thank you.

  25. I will only discuss politics with someone who believes the exact same things I do, it’s much nicer.

    My Dad used to come home from the polls and say “canceled out your mother’s vote!”

  26. lauren – ;) back atcha.

    Molly – Ha! I know! I love tea! Can’t they be the Oatmeal Porridge club or something?

    Rob – Well thank you sir for your thoughts. We certainly lose focus on specific ideas of programs to implement.

    Deja – Conflict Sells. Very good way to put it, and I hadn’t even considered the impact of rampant Springerism.

    valentine – Agree. Lead by example, if only in small ways. With laughter to deflate hostility where possible.

    Kathy – I do think fear, caused by more information and less economic dominance, is key.

  27. Marsha – Thank you. Your father did such a good job.

    Michelle – Thanks. I think when you know you don’t know anything, then you listen more carefully. I’m not always good at it, but I do keep trying. Congratulations on your professional ambitions and I wish you well.

    Dawn – It’s my life philosophy too. I may be wrong, but I prefer the consequences of being wrong to the way I’d feel if I always assumed the worst.

    mags – We will bring the mirrors under the table, perhaps on a disco ball, but leave the smoke behind?

    Susan – Thank you so much.

  28. Marcela – I am thinking, as I read your comment, that I don’t like anger, so if I going to engage in a heated discussion, I want to know what I’m talking about.

    RoseAG – It does take a very special approach to encourage civil discourse. Humor is a key component, also careful listening so you can reflect back to people what they are saying and make them feel heard. That’s what most people want, I believe, is to be heard.

    girltuesday – You, of course, manage to remain both anonymous and gracious:).

    Jessica – Thank you. Yes, emotions drive ratings. And I’m very fortunate to have such an informed sister. Especially since I was in business all my career, and therefore am fairly unschooled in the workings of government.

    TPP – I am deeply honored and would like to have been in the car. Except that I am less measured a communicator in person, so perhaps friends by iPhone is best:). Let us all at least cease to condemn other human beings so happily.

  29. Laura – Thank you. I will keep trying my best.

    Aleatha – Yes! The blame bit. And the Green Beans, the concept of which delights me. Absolutely.

    Penelope Bianchi – It’s the equivalent of staying local, living one’s values with close relationships and refraining from trying to impose them at a political level. I understand completely.

    Paula – Oh lord. I can’t believe he said that. My sister just answers my specific questions. This one was about Social Security, but let’s not go there:).

    Mette – I know little about Finnish politics, but it seems you all manage to remain civil.

    1. Hi Lisa, not only did she say that (a woman holds that position), but the conservative newpapers are full with loyal comments where people say how right she was to point this out and how left-wing our country is … It is not possible to talk about differing opinions without emotions in this country. A german banker told me how they discuss everything rational in Germany and that it is hard to say what is better: listening to en emotional idiot (Austria) or to an rationalising idiot (Germany).

  30. Flo – Oh my gosh I recognize this process! I don’t use it for politics, no need at this moment, but for other heated personal exchanges. It’s not too long. I’m happy to know I’m not alone in my approach to managing difficult interpersonal situations.

    Someone – An interesting article. Thank you for posting the link, thank you for refraining from naming names here in the comments. That way the information is conveyed, but emotions don’t get so riled up that thought is lost.

    Brohammas – Perhaps we could have banners. Inside Voices Please! I like that.

    Flo – Have at it! I am coming up empty.

    Sandra Jonas – OK. I will make sure to have lots of cushions and lemonade.

  31. Louise – How does one fight for civility? It’s almost an oxymoron.

    Mary Jane – We can all begin now.

    Hijab – Thank you!

    Stephanie – My pleasure.

    Patsy – Ha!

  32. I feel VERY strongly in favor of one side. I’m afraid it’s hard for me even to listen to what the other side has to say, it’s such drivel right now. Until the other side starts talking sense, I’m sorry to say that polite discourse is nigh impossible.

  33. So beautifully stated. You have tapped into all my own frustrations with political discourse and stated everything simply and beautifully and eloquently. I really just want everyone to be civil and discuss things politely and remain open to other perspectives. Reading this post I feel like I can take my head out of the sand for a few minutes.

  34. Why am I now seeing this? I am slow, but I love this blog, always have and always will. I couldn’t agree more. There are so many blogs I read in which I adore the blogger and then I come across something that’s so politically divisive and I exhale and keep it moving. I always ask myself how would God or our maker feel if he/she knew that the love that they wanted us to feel for each other was shot mid air by something like politics, which divides us more than brings us together. My parents are democrats but I don’t see myself as either Dem or Repub.Because One party can not express all my beliefs.

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