How to be politically correct while still being political?
July 4, 2010 9:44 AM   Subscribe

How do I politely back out of political/social commentary without appearing uninformed?

For myself I'm quite confident in my own social and political beliefs. I avoid jumping on bandwagons, research sources and take new/unverified information with a grain of salt. I'm very much liberal; environmentalist, feminist, pro gay marriage, anti religion, pro animal rights etc. I understand that these are very volatile subjects, I try my best to be open-minded and considerate when discussing such things with people of opposing views. I know people believe what they do for many different reasons and most take the same considerations I do when making such assessments. I also know there are situations where discussion of these topics is off-limits. That being said it's pretty much impossible to avoid it altogether and I've been confronted an a few occasions with condescension and outright hostility for speaking up. I firmly believe those who resort to swearing and petty remarks have no place in civilized debate (you either have a valid point or you don't, don't call me an a*hole because you think I'm wrong). Unfortunately I am horrible at remembering my own sources. I know at the time that I did my research because it's what I've always done, but when confronted with a need for 'proof', I'm stumped. "Oh, I read it.. somewhere... 5 years ago" sounds so flaky and strips credibility from those causes. My latest maneuver will be to gracefully redirect the conversation while still voicing an intelligent opinion. So how do I do that? Are there other tactics for these situations?
posted by Miss Mitz to Human Relations (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
So is your question, 'how do I win an argument with people who confront me with condescension or outright hostility?' The answer to that is, you don't bother. Life is too short. Voicing an intelligent opinion will go unnoticed, whether you gracefully redirect the conversation or not.

Assuming that preamble about people being rude is a red herring that doesn't belong in your question, and you're actually asking how to win arguments with reasonable people, then you need to remember your sources. Even then the approach depends very much on the subject under debate.

Your solution, to back out after voicing an intelligent opinion, sounds like getting the last word in before taking your bat home. It may work (i.e. frustrate) less intelligent opposition, but it's not going to change the world.
posted by caek at 9:59 AM on July 4, 2010

Don't voice an opinion. Especially if you are in the type of company who like to just argue for argument's sake. It will only frustrate you. Politely change the subject to something less, no matter how bad the segue is --> "Fiscal policy, eh... Say, have you guys heard of the new double down KFC sandwich?!"
posted by joeyjoejoejr at 10:16 AM on July 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

You know, I do politics for a living, but I hate discussing politics/world issues/current events outside of my job. My job is intense and detailed, and when I'm away from it, I want to shoot the shit about mindless, light topics. I used to be uncomfortable deflecting because I didn't want to look uninformed or disinterested when these type of topics came up, but I finally just tell people that I enjoy politics - love politics! - but I don't discuss them in social situations. (I don't sound like a prat - I keep it light, then make a joke, but I'm firm about it.) Most people accept this.
posted by Laura Macbeth at 10:20 AM on July 4, 2010 [8 favorites]

Avoid people who confront you on controversial matters. You are under no obligation to speak to these people, they are rude. Smile, say something dismissive, and move away. But, if you feel the need to not appear ignorant to these people - the least you say, the more people assume you know.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:21 AM on July 4, 2010

When my co-workers start spouting off about their political beliefs (those that I think are completely off-the-wall-stupid), I smile, nod and say, "That's an interesting observation. Did you see the story about the [completely unrelated issue] the paper today?"

It usually gets the message across that the political subject should be taken off the table. If my co-worker doesn't get it on the first try, I wash, rinse, repeat.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 10:33 AM on July 4, 2010

Just because someone asks your opinion doesn't mean you have to give it. Not too many people carry around notes or remember their sources.

I generally find that when an argument has moved from a debate about the issues to a debate about your reading list, the conversation is over. Usually when people ask where you got certain information, it's because they want to discredit your source. You derail them by saying, "You know, I don't remember off the top of my head. I read a lot. I could look it up for you when I get home if you like."

That's usually a pretty effective way to end a conversation without escalating the nastiness.
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:37 AM on July 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

You've got to quit pig wrestling.

People who are that vocal about their opinions aren't going to be swayed by what you say no matter how intelligent and well cited your opinion.

Step away from people like that and enjoy your day with one less argument and one less self righteous person in it.

There are a number of things you can say to walk away from a pointless fight like this:
"I do my politics at the polls."
"Clearly we'll never see eye to eye on this. How about [local sports team]?"

And my favorite, which has never failed me:
"I'll leave the arguments to people like you who are passionate about the subject."

You might take issue that one because it gives them the impression they won. But remember you weren't going to sway their opinion anyway. This cuts them off from trying to sway yours, so you win. You not only win, but you beat them and made them like it. Best of both worlds.
posted by Ookseer at 10:38 AM on July 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Some clarification on my motives: while trying to be respectful of other people's views, my own are very important to me. Appearing intelligent and well-informed lends credibility to them. I don't want to shove any agenda down someone's throat, but if someone tells me that global warming is a myth, I'd like to provide some doubt and resources for them to reassess. If someone offered a solid database of info for their argument I'd at least follow-up by checking it out. Failing that I'd at least like to leave them thinking I'm sane.
posted by Miss Mitz at 11:21 AM on July 4, 2010

Response by poster: Also, I'm not trying to "win" a conversation, more.. wrangle it should it get unruly.
posted by Miss Mitz at 11:29 AM on July 4, 2010

When my co-workers start spouting off about their political beliefs (those that I think are completely off-the-wall-stupid), I smile, nod and say, "That's an interesting observation. Did you see the story about the [completely unrelated issue] the paper today?"

This is what I do, only I try to pivot on the subject of O Tempora O Mores, the perennial awfulness of the news. "Man, it's rough out there. Did you hear about [local crime / Balloon Boy / something everyone can be equally disapproving of without regards to politics?]" This puts people off the scent of a subject change, or if it doesn't, at least it doesn't give the appearance that you've been offended.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:30 AM on July 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can definitely relate, I've chosen to systematically appease my far too damn aggressive debating boyfriend. Whenever he-or anyone brings the topic of politics up and I sense they're out for verbal blood; I smile, gently tilt my head to one side, make steady eye contact, and mention something totally light hearted. Seriously, their irrelevant-to-your-own-ideas-opinion isn't worth the stress of having to recall sources and risk putting yourself in a foul mood. Sometimes best way to display a having a well informed opinion is to not give one at all. Be disinterested. Let it come across that you're aware with so many other important issues and pursuits that being bothered to have a juvenile heated political/ethical exchange with them is clearly a waste of your time. Amazing what a tilt of the head can do. Good luck!
posted by xbeautychicx at 11:37 AM on July 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

If I'm reading you right, you want to be able to refute assertions of idiocy with counter-assertions of intelligence. If that's the case, you really don't have much choice except to keep your talking points relatively close to the top of your mind—if you don't, you risk sounding as idiotic as the person you're trying to refute. And from the wording of your question, you know this. Trying to sound well-informed without actually being well-informed is tricky, although with the right personality you can baffle people with bluster. You might want to read, and re-read "Why People Believe Strange Things." But you're still not likely to change any minds.

Either that, or let sleeping dogs lie. Or don't wrestle with pigs. Or whatever barnyard metaphor you like.
posted by adamrice at 11:57 AM on July 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

When in polite company someone says something you disagree with, it's not so bad to say something along the line of "although i disagree with you we are having a great time, lets talk about something else."

When with your relatives, let the invectives fly, come on it's FAMILY.
posted by Max Power at 12:08 PM on July 4, 2010

Whenever I meet people who have grand design views about how the world really works, or how things should be run, I keep quiet and politely say that i don't know enough about the problem to give out an intelligent opinion. Anybody who thinks large scale problems are easily solvable are either immature or megalomaniacs.
posted by Omon Ra at 12:24 PM on July 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

I know a lot of people like those the original poster mentions. I've learned that no matter what sources I give to back up my opinions, they aren't good enough - the person will come back with "liberal media bias!" or something. Basically, if the source is not Fox News or other conservative publications or blogs, they're not going to believe it.

These days I just say something like "That's very interesting. How about those Cubs?"
posted by SisterHavana at 12:46 PM on July 4, 2010

Also, I'm not trying to "win" a conversation, more.. wrangle it should it get unruly

Ah - OK - you understand that rational debate is futile. But - symbolic debate is not. It's not about logic, it's about attitude. Humor: Global warming? Hey, I have friends in Alaska. They say it's real - but they LIKE it! Exaggeration: Yep, PETA sure are wackos. So, have you stopped beating your dog yet? Appeal to values they claim to believe in: Gay marriage? Freedom means freedom for Everybody - what are you, a communist? Etc.
posted by coffeefilter at 1:38 PM on July 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can relate to your predicament; I'm also forgetful about sources. But this:

you really don't have much choice except to keep your talking points relatively close to the top of your mind

= true. I mean, depending on who you're talking to, it might be possible to (a) redirect the conversation away from your forgotten sources, while (b) still stating an intelligent-sounding opinion, and (c) succeeding in making them think you're smart. But since you're so conscientious yourself, I doubt that tactic is actually a recipe for your own long-term satisfaction in these encounters. You may still feel like you've cheated or not given your views their rightful airing. Given the kind of person you are, you may just need to prepare more comprehensively for impromptu debates.
posted by Beardman at 1:58 PM on July 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

What are they offering as "proof?"

In verbal discussion, most people don't expect a full MLS-style source. If you have your facts basically straight and can deliver them confidently, you should be able to hold your own just fine.

This is assuming that these folks are actually interested in a discussion. If the pat answer is "librul media bias," I'm not sure what you'll be able to offer to convince them anyway, and that's exactly what I'd probably say in response.
posted by desuetude at 2:26 PM on July 4, 2010

You know, I do politics for a living, but I hate discussing politics/world issues/current events outside of my job.

Me too! Well, sort of. I like talking about politics, but once it gets argumentative, I tend to want to get out of the conversation, because, really, nothing turns some people into bigger pricks than arguments about politics.

It seems like you have two separate questions here. One is how to get people to act respectfully even though you disagree, and the other is how to get them to reassess their own views.

For the first question:
When someone is pressing you about your sources, they are showing that they can't talk about politics without being a prick, and it's totally ok to say, "hey, you know what? I don't remember my source, but you know, it's a nice day, let's not ruin it by fighting" and change the subject. If they continue to be an ass (ie, saying something like "oh, you can't back up your arguments") then you are totally justified in ending the conversation completely.

For the second:
It's great that you are so conscientious about sources and researching political issues. Really, it's great, and I wish more people were. Unfortunately, I find that, in general, people who are as conscientious as you don't necessarily tend to be any better at persuading others, for two reasons:

1. Because they place such a high value on having all the facts straight, they often feel that it's those facts that give their arguments merit. So if you can't remember one of the sources, it invalidates the whole argument. But the thing is, your opinion isn't valid only because of the facts - it's valid because it's what you believe, and anyone you call a friend should at least respect that without being a dick about it.

2. Psychological research has shown that most people don't dispassionately gather facts, weigh the pros and cons, and then make a purely rational decision about political/social issues. We make decisions based on our values, morals and deep beliefs, and then gather facts to support that opinion (read The Political Brain for a lot more about this). You probably do this, too, to some extent, and that's ok. That's human. But this is why it doesn't matter if you can or cannot remember a source, because that one source is unlikely to convince your debating partner.

That said, I've found that often, the best way to get someone to reassess their opinion is to couple a compelling fact (especially something that goes counter to common wisdom) with a moral/values-based argument. For instance, I was recently in a conversation with someone about immigration, something that can obviously get contentious very fast here in the US. Anyway, she had clearly internalized the "immigration crisis" trope. I found out when her ancestors had immigrated here (late 19th century) and pointed out that the immigration rates in the last 10 years have actually been much lower by population than they were then. And asked what kind of country it would have been if our ancestors hadn't come here. I'm not sure if I totally convinced her, but it definitely got her to step back and think about her assumptions on the issue.
posted by lunasol at 2:28 PM on July 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've had some luck responding to statements I find absurd with questions. e.g.:

"Barack Obama is a muslim, and an illegitimate president"
me: "Oh, I haven't been following this story, what are the details here?"

often what comes out next is so self-evidently absurd that both parties will agree it's a natural stopping point for that topic. Doesn't always work, but when it does it's pretty useful.
posted by deadweightloss at 3:40 PM on July 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

I keep an anecdote in mind for each of several topics that interest me to refer to in times like these. For global warming I usually talk about the Younger Dryas as an example of how climate change can be sudden and catastrophic. It may not change minds, but it at least illustrates there's real science going on they might not be seeing on Fox News.
posted by atchafalaya at 6:57 PM on July 4, 2010

If there is a conversation that someone is drawing me into that I don't like the direction of, I say: "I don't discuss politics at work." or "I don't discuss politics in large groups." People respect that amazingly well.

Or, if I feel like being flippant, I say I am a boarder-line communist. They are generally so taken aback by someone admitting that (especially when they are trying to figure-out how to call you one), that the subject is quickly changed.
posted by chiefthe at 8:26 PM on July 4, 2010

I smile brightly and change the subject. Every time. And keep quiet, no matter how much I disagree with whatever I'm hearing--as others upthread have already said, it just isn't worth it when people are in the mood to just hear themselves talk and argue for dick-measuring sake, and the trick is to keep from getting frustrated in the first place. Nip it in the bud as soon as you can. I've been known to float off as diplomatically as possible to another part of a room if changing the subject isn't working.
posted by ifjuly at 9:32 AM on July 5, 2010

Keeping quiet is hard. It seems that way for you. But if you're committed to that, I think you have to get over the idea that you come across uninformed. When people engage politics, they know they're treading in hot water, and if they get no response, the provocateur's first thought isn't "oh, this person is uninformed." Rather, they're likely to become self-conscious and think, "oops, did breach the wrong topic" or "hmm, maybe I said something stupid." Non-response and silence generally confers strength and dominance to the person who does it.

Having said that, I don't think that's what you want to do. I think you want to assert your ideas, and that's okay, but you have to be creative about it. I still work on it all the time. My response to "global warming is a myth" varies widely depending on the context. I've responded to that comment with the following:
  • sarcastically: Yeah, I don't listen to scientists either
  • Look at the crap that comes out of cars, and look how many cars there are, you know that's got to be choking us
  • Well, if we're wrong, we made the Earth a cleaner, healthier place in the mean-time.
  • I guess it's convenient that the same think tanks spewing that BS are funded by oil companies
  • sarcastically: I guess.
What's notable is that there's a lack of reasoned debate in my response. If people say something to troll me, I put on my troll-gloves, and pretty much judo my way out of it. I don't try to convince them, or cite some fact, but rather rebuff them so that they back down, or realize that I'm not really interested in continuing the conversation, but that I did register my side.

In other words, I say something to bring about a truce. I want to discourage them from trying.
posted by philosophistry at 6:53 PM on July 5, 2010

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