Political Arguments: Friendly or Vicious?
April 25, 2012 2:08 PM   Subscribe

I recently left an environment where almost everyone has the same style of dealing with political differences, and the same purpose in political discussion. Now I'm having to deal with entirely different ones, with friends and loved ones, and it's causing conflict. Who's right? Is anyone right? And how can I minimize the problems?

For several years, I worked at a very diverse organization, where people of all types, backgrounds, and original geographic locations joined together. We had very different ideas about politics, but because we varied /so/ much, we learned that we had to kind of accept everyone's differences in order to get along.

This did /not/ take the form of not talking about the differences. In part because our jobs were often long hours with monotonous work, we would cheerfully argue about recent political developments, or our own political differences, to keep ourselves alert and engaged. These discussions were for our own pleasure-not really formal debates or serious attempts to change someone's complete perspective. Often, people would play devil's advocate, switch sides, argue hypotheticals, etc. This wasn't a problem-even the most extreme liberal could be chummy with the most extreme conservative while hashing this out.

A few years ago, I left that job and went back to my original hometown, re-establishing and strengthening friendships. But many of them, including my fiance, talk about politics in a much more heated way than I am used to, and with much more intent. They also seem to be much more used to a bubble of people who agree with them, and so they seem to find it frustrating and personally upsetting to be disagreed with. In addition, sometimes, they only want to continue the conversation if they can "win." I am confused by this, and not sure how to handle this.

In many ways, this is only exacerbated by things like Facebook, where people are posting political links and arguing on them, and all of your other friends can see the argument. It often means that the next time they see me in person, they want to talk about the politics, but in an attacking manner or one designed to try to completely and forcefully turn me to their viewpoint.

This problem is also made worse by the fact that I'm neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring-neither left nor right nor in between, but with a hodgepodge of ideas that seem to suit me. I think often, part of the problem is that people feel personally betrayed, when I agree with them on X, but disagree with them on Y, and feel that they need to "convert" me, for my own good or what have you. Or, they think that all people who believe Z are jerks, so they need to convert me quickly so as not to have cognitive dissonance.

This previous metafilter post lists another problem I have, but from the opposite side: people who want to force me to read a variety of data in the certain knowledge that I'll be convinced on ethical topics ("Why X is Morally Right") by said data, when in fact, we fundamentally disagree on core values that no statistics can budge.

Short Version: What do I do about political conversation? Am I crazy to think that people with different ideas about politics can ever be friends, and ever discuss those ideas? Are these friends reacting strangely? Is this a large-city thing? A geek thing? And more importantly than all of these, what do I do about this, both in the short term and long term?
posted by corb to Human Relations (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You're definitely not crazy to think that sometimes people with different political views can get along, but it only works in scenarios where everyone has enough mutual respect to see that people can differ without being wrong. Honestly the only way I've ever been able to avoid being lectured is to ... well, avoid. I very rarely post political things on facebook and ignore it when I see other people do it. I only talk about politics with people I know will be polite about differences in opinion.

From what I've seen the sort of people who take this very aggressive perspective on who is right and wrong in political matters will never accept that you can have a different opinion without being an idiot. Hopefully you can "train" people not to talk about it around you, but if you really enjoy talking about politics it might be difficult to not get beat up over it (metaphorically). Good luck!
posted by brilliantine at 2:18 PM on April 25, 2012

In terms of big cities, New Yorkers tend to love to fight/have a strong, loud opinion that can be overwhelming to people who aren't used to it.

If you don't enjoy talking about politics with these people, maybe become the Guy Who Doesn't Talk About Politics.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:18 PM on April 25, 2012

Am I crazy to think that people with different ideas about politics can ever be friends, and ever discuss those ideas

Mostly yes. The thing is that lots of people are already well aware of what "the other side" of the issue is, and a "discussion" is basically seen as something in terms of picking a fight-- which is fine if that's what the two people involved want! (in which case it seems like your typical Yankees/Red Sox suck maneuvering for social dominance). "I know what you think, you know what I think" is an acceptable detente. No one needs to hear about my special snowflake thoughts on abortion.

There's also a bit of "social rules" enforcement-- saying you're against gay marriage, for example, is considered an attack on others, and the "socially acceptable" thing to do is give strong, strong pushback rather than "silently tolerate" what is regarded as vocalizing anti-gay sentiments.
posted by deanc at 2:28 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

"I don't like talking about politics".
posted by empath at 2:36 PM on April 25, 2012

I'm one of only a handful of non-liberals at my work. There are a couple of co-workers who just *love* to attack me when they find a news story that strengthens their position on a given issue. I usually just let them rant and nod my head a bunch. I might totally disagree with what they are saying, but I'd rather let them think they've said something brilliant than contradict them and start a verbal war.

Sounds like the same type of person you're dealing with. I wish I could tell you I've found a better work-around, but it's not true. They are set in their ways, I am set in mine, and there's no point in arguing.
posted by tacodave at 3:34 PM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

You cannot make people who are determined to have a fight, suddenly give that up. Building what they call "positive peace" in a conflict-happy atmosphere is pretty much the most difficult human relations task ever. You need to recognize that for these people, at least most of them, the way they're behaving now works. It gets them what they think they want, and that is a huge hurdle.

I recommend changing the subject. It's less stressful than smiling and nodding, and over time people stop doing the fighty thing around you.
posted by SMPA at 4:02 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

"[W]hat do I do about this, both in the short term and long term?"

Two choices. One, don't involve yourself in the first place - i.e. "I don't like to discuss politics." Option two, go ahead but go ahead knowing that everyone uses their own rules and some cultures and areas will lend themselves to more mainstreaming of certain viewpoints - so you'll be more expected to conform or experience emotionality about it.

If you go with the second option, do so with full awareness. Be ready for tension and friction in those relationships. Perhaps with trial and error you can learn which friends can handle the debate and which ones can't.

Generally speaking (and from my own personal experience - Your Mileage May Vary), smaller towns and towns in the Deep South of the USA, and highly religious areas often create these environments where people attach a LOT of identity meaning to their politics.

So your opposition to their belief is an opposition to their VERY BEING and they will DEFEND that position to the ends of the earth. A person with strong beliefs is not as likely to handle that kind of debate without going to attack mode... because being wrong would mean they are wrong in who they are (according to themselves).

Your opposing position attacks everything about their social group membership and sense of belonging. They have been properly socialized to view that notion as the Wrong Way, and likely also socialized to feel that if they do not defend the position and convert you, there will be terrible consequences. Depending on the issue, they may feel there will be eternal consequences also.

Is it any wonder then, that being Right is taken very *seriously* in this context?
posted by hungry hippo at 4:03 PM on April 25, 2012

ETA I say "properly socialized" in the sense that being part of that particular group comes with certain expectations and conformity, so if the group at large has decided an idea is wrong then someone who is adequately socialized to belong to said group is going to feel that way in many cases.
posted by hungry hippo at 4:05 PM on April 25, 2012

Response by poster: Some additional information:

It's really hard for me to say "I don't like to discuss politics," because it's patently known that I /do/ like to discuss politics. I work in a highly political job as an organizer, which occasionally is very public, and often has a lot of Facebook integration.
posted by corb at 4:39 PM on April 25, 2012

I'm one of only a handful of non-liberals at my work.

I'm in the opposite position, except I'm the only liberal (that I know of) at my workplace. It is a place that is pretty hostile to religious and political diversity, so I keep my head down for the most part. I come from a place that is quite tolerant of differing opinions and respect my coworkers' opinions. It is troubling to me that it isn't a place where I can be open about mine, but I've found that talking politics in this workplace just complicates matters, so I don't.

I draw a line at hate speech - when that comes out, I try to (mildly) advocate against hate speech*. I do this because I am sure there are other folks who conceal their religious, political, etc. feelings for fear of being mistreated, and I want them (and me) to work in a safe workplace.

Would I like it if it were different? Yeah. But I love my job otherwise, so on balance not talking politics at work is something I'm willing to accept. In your community or group of friends, I'm not sure what to suggest beyond aggressively going outside your girlfriend's group of friends to meet folks with a variety of viewpoints. Also, find some very bright bloggers/podcasters that oppose her viewpoints, and listen to them. I do this, I find it interesting, helps me get a broader perspective about current events, and it is a fun (and occasionally infuriating) exercise for my brain.

*Note: I'm not suggesting in any way that to be conservative is to endorse or utilize hate speech, it happens in every group regardless of orientation or affiliation, simply saying that when I hear it, I will go out on a limb to make it clear that I, at least, am not ok with it on behalf of others who don't feel comfortable enough to speak up.
posted by arnicae at 4:56 PM on April 25, 2012

These are the sorts of boundaries that people tend not to care about. Like you, I'm politically minded, love discussing these issues, and hate 95% of the discussion. I was politically active in the Democratic Party for ten years, and come from a politically active Republican family. So turning off the drive to talk about issues (in an election year no less) is very difficult.

I deal with it in the following manner with mixed results:

I try to remind people that Being Right and Democracy are currently not compatible in America. I'm on the side of Democracy, with the hopes that people will evolve and agree with me down the line. Hell, I know I'm imperfect, so I hope we eventually evolve past my beliefs.

When I discuss politics, I do not focus on right or wrong. I deal with that in the voting booth and my personal life. In my discussions of politics, I put aside my personal opinions on whether or not gay people deserve marriage and focus on the realities of what people believe and how political institutions should align with those beliefs.

The debate on whether or not gay people *should* marry is not a political issue. It's a social issue with political consequences. I don't debate social issues except in the safest of spaces. I honestly believe yelling at social conservatives only entrenches the very beliefs you're trying to change. So while it might make you feel better, it really does more harm than good.

Democracy means finding common ground and cooperating with people you don't agree with. And if someone can't do this in a political debate, I don't find any value in continuing a conversation that dehumanizes either my conservative Southern family or my liberal friends and significant other.
posted by politikitty at 5:00 PM on April 25, 2012

Best answer: I think it's reasonable to say that you love to discuss politics when you're on the job, but you get enough of that there and with friends you'd really like to be able to leave it at the office if friends don't seem to be able to talk about these topics more cheerfully and generously toward one another. I've found that the Metafilter-inspired line that "We don't tend to do this well" can be very effective when things start to heat up, and you can calmly explain that you don't think it's valuable for society OR your friendships when everyone just starts shouting across one another. You can help things if you have some really interesting non-political substitute group discussion topics at the ready. Here are a couple of ideas, like:

- What was the best or most thoughtful gift you have ever given, the one you are still the most proud of?
- If you suddenly had to enter the witness protection program 1000 miles from where you live now, what job would you take? What name? What would you miss the most?
- What's the weirdest food you've ever eaten? What's the weirdest you've been offered, but declined? What unusual foods would you still like to try someday?

(As a side note, you mentioned that your fiance does this, too. Is that potentially a bigger problem?)
posted by argonauta at 5:31 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: It is potentially a bigger problem, but my fiance and I have at least tried to create specific safeguards to ensure those discussions don't get out of control, but it is certainly an issue. We don't talk about politics in the bedroom, and we try to make sure to check in with each other, though.

I'm going to leave this open, because even though "We don't tend to do this well" is helpful, I ultimately want to figure out a way that this can work civilly: strategies to ensure that these conversations can take place, but respectfully and well.
posted by corb at 7:34 AM on May 24, 2012

to ensure that these conversations can take place, but respectfully and well.

Why do you want to "ensure" that these conversations take place? They are almost completely and totally unnecessary.

Why would they take place respectfully? So much of politics is a zero-sum game -- one side's success is another side's loss --, and if someone said, "With the utmost respect, I don't believe you should have a job/a home/health insurance/be able to get married," there's no real response there that's going to be "civil and well."

Often, people would play devil's advocate, switch sides, argue hypotheticals, etc.

Just FYI, no one likes that person who does that.
posted by deanc at 7:18 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

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