On Political Debates

Many people are claiming that debating political issues is pointless, as nobody will change their minds if the topic is dear to their heart. In this vein, all calls for a more inclusive and open culture are futile, since nobody ever listens to other people’s viewpoints, and if they do, they won’t change their mind. I find this deeply disturbing as it seems like an implied call for a crackdown on divergent opinions by one dominant ideology. People seem to assume that we should ensure that this ideology is the “right” one instead of acknowledging that a healthy democracy should feature a multitude of viewpoints that are discussed openly.

Also, I think that many negative assumptions about the value of debates are just plain wrong as most people make crucial errors when trying to discuss issues of public interest with people they fundamentally disagree with. When it comes to discussing contentious issues, whether it be Brexit, the US presidential election, or feminism, to name a few, discussions become so emotionally heated that it becomes impossible to have a rational and productive conversation.

What to do? I would suggest that a good starting point is the book “Crucial Conversations” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. One of the most important insights of this book is that when engaging in a discussion with someone who potentially has a different viewpoint on a contentious issue, one should do the following; you must make sure that you create a safe environment to discuss it.

What does that mean?

Take people who are opposed to immigration, and suppose that you want to convince them of the opposite.

Will you be successful in pursuing your discussion goal by insulting them and calling them racist and inhuman? Most likely not. To avoid an immediate negative emotional reaction to a perceived threat you have to make sure that there is none.

Make sure to emphasize that any discussion is a conversation which honours everyone’s viewpoints and is intended to be a stepping stone to finding a solution that benefits everyone.

You want to make sure that people are comfortable expressing their concerns and feel secure that you respect their point of view. Just because you fundamentally disagree and might feel violated in your sense of justice shouldn’t mean that you start screaming insults. Trust me, I do this on a regular basis, but I usually don’t end up with anything productive to show for it. And I think that should be the aim of a political discussion.

You do not have to like or agree with the other person if they hold a belief you detest. But respect their right to voice their opinion and listen to their concerns. If you fail to do so, you cannot expect them to listen to you either.

Therefore:

Respect divergent viewpoints!

After that, you want to establish that there is common ground in the discussion. You might find it hard to believe that someone opposing immigration and someone in favour of it have any common ground, but I would argue that they do.

How so? You just must ask the question “why?” often enough.

Someone might say — “No, I don’t want any people to come to my country”. By asking “why?” often enough you will usually find what this person is striving for in their life. If you ask them for their reasoning behind their statement, they might say that they’re afraid to lose their job to incoming competition from migrants. This is a valid concern. And what lies underneath it? The fear of not being able to live a safe, comfortable, and stimulating life. The fear of not being able to keep a family intact and to have kids and to support them while they grow up. Existential fears of not being able to sustain even yourself.

The person that is in favour of immigration is likely to make an argument such as -“Everyone should have the opportunity to live a comfortable, safe and stimulating life, wherever they want. People that are fleeing war or other dire circumstance are merely trying to keep their families intact and have kids and support them while they grow up. Further, if more people come to our country, more people will buy your services and provide services of their own, making us all better off.”

You see what I did there?

It might be argued that this is a bit of a constructed example. But I think that behind any strong political opinion there is the deep need for safety and the pursuit of our dreams. It is important to remember that while we might not agree on everything. at the end of the day, we are all human.

If we remind ourselves that we all ultimately want very similar things, it becomes easier to reign in our emotions during debates and focus on the facts. We might disagree on how to get where we all want to go, and we might have slightly different ideas of what actions can be justified in the pursuit of our dreams. Therefore, we need to come together and discuss these issues.

So:

Stress common ground!

But most importantly, if you fail to make very clear what the objective behind your suggestion of a political action is (e.g. accept immigrants, because it will benefit everyone), then people might fear that you have ulterior motives.

This is probably the biggest obstacle to having productive political discussions and something you see every day. Whether people fear that feminists are secretly plotting to subjugate men or that Trump will try to reverse any liberal law in the US. When people don’t know what your objective is they become sceptical and scared.

So, to avoid confusion:

Always clearly state what your objective behind your political action/opinion is!

If we all respect these small pieces of advice, I think we have a chance to respectfully hash out our political discussions and come to decisions that do not end in widespread panic.

I am not trying to imply that any belief is valid, some people are sociopaths and need to be stopped. I just think that when trying to debate an issue, it makes sense to adhere to these principles to give everyone the best chance to come to a mutually beneficial understanding.

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4 thoughts on “On Political Debates

  1. Of course, people change their minds all the time and most can be convinced with reason. Things are more difficult when it comes to reaching the wider public. The question is then about how long is the attention that I get and how often do I get it? This is the reason why more authoritarian people like cults or a tremendous number of liberals don’t want you to talk to other people or listen to Fox News/Drudge/Breitbart and so on. Open-minded people will just say, ‘Have you seen CNN? Hahahaha. Watch how stupid they are!’

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  2. Hey Benjamin,
    I think I understand what you are saying but I am not completely sure.
    Do you mean that CNN is very one-sided?
    I agree that listening to a variety of viewpoints is important in the pursuit of truth.

    Like

    • Whatever the faults of CNN (and there are many) my actual point is that one can criticise and mock them. To ask people not to watch it is a different kettle of fish – of course there are shades of bullying.

      In fact this is a bit how mass manipulation works. Because of our tribal nature most people don’t proactively form opinions on public affairs on their own. They choose leaders. Dealing with this fairly one invites people to listen to a plethora of thought leaders and see what arguments make most sense.

      Authoritarians very strongly focus on telling people not to listen to other people. This has been human behavior forever, but formally the concept was popularised through Gustave LeBon’s book “The Crowd: Study of The Popular Mind”.

      BTW I checked on your comment section coincidentally. If you use the ‘reply’ function readers get notified about your message.

      P.S. Of course, CNN is biased!

      Liked by 1 person

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