From Politically Passive to Politically Active
August 18, 2008 12:34 PM   Subscribe

How to talk to my non-political friends about politics?

I want to talk about politics with my group of friends who are mostly non-political. I have been friends for about a year with these people (after moving back to my home city from college) and I am missing my more political friends from prior years. The thing is with my old friends, we started out political and that is how we met and became friends in the first place. Is it possible to make a politically active group of friends out of an existing politically passive group of friends?

I want to avoid coming off as an inconsiderate preacher who pushes their beliefs on everyone (which is really not the point), which could appear to be the case, since I'm the only one with any established politics. I also want to avoid arguments where people would be hurt or hold grudges. I want them to feel empowered (to act) and help/encourage them to develop their own politics.

Is it best to do this gradually? or just lay it on the table? Am I over thinking this? Do I just need to get new friends?
posted by symbollocks to Society & Culture (32 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
How about..."Hey what do you think about the presidential campaigns?"
posted by ian1977 at 12:37 PM on August 18, 2008

Response by poster: Clarification: When I say politics, I don't just mean electoral politics, but the politics of everyday life, living in a meaningful way etc. etc.
posted by symbollocks at 12:44 PM on August 18, 2008

Since you seem to know nothing at all about their political beliefs, better go about it gradually. Make an offhand joke about a recent political event or ask them if they've seen the Daily Show lately. Or ask a very neutral but straightforward question like ian1977's above.
posted by aswego at 12:44 PM on August 18, 2008

I want them to feel empowered (to act) and help/encourage them to develop their own politics.

Is there any reason to suggest that they are incapable of acting on their own? Are they themselves unhappy with their lack of politics, or are you just unhappy with their lack of politics?
posted by Brockles at 12:46 PM on August 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Actually ian1977, that's exactly the kind of talk I want to get away from. Rather than addressing politics as something "out there", I would rather talk about it as something that relates to your life right now.
posted by symbollocks at 12:46 PM on August 18, 2008

This question reads to me as "Can I turn my new friends into my old friends?" The answer, of course, is no. You can discuss politics with individuals, you can bring up politics in group settings, you can talk until you are blue in the face, but you cannot turn people into other people. You say your current friends have no "established politics", but I find that hard to believe- everyone has opinions on politics. First, I advise you find out what they are. Then you can figure out how to go forward- inviting friends to take part in activities you organize in support of politicians, parties, or issues, as appropriate.

On preview, your question becomes even more unclear to me: When I say politics, I don't just mean electoral politics, but the politics of everyday life, living in a meaningful way etc. etc. Surely all of these new friends have "everyday lives"?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:46 PM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

"Is it possible to make a politically active group of friends out of an existing politically passive group of friends?"

I'm not an especially political person. I have my opinions but politics holds little of interest to me, and much of what people consider "activism" these days puts me off. If one of my existing friends tried to make me a "politically active... friend" I'd listen politely to what seemed so important to them and wait for the issue to get dropped. Were it to come up repeatedly, I'd make sure to spend proportionally less time and attention on this person so as not to continue the decline of my esteem for them.
posted by majick at 12:47 PM on August 18, 2008 [5 favorites]

Please don't.

Non-political people don't want to talk about politics. It's enough to let them know it's something you care about so that if they are curious they can approach you...

The problem is that it's a sore spot for a lot of people. They know they should understand the subject, and feel disadvantaged in the presence of someone who can explain how a bill becomes a law, or how we don't have a right to vote enumerated in the constitution, or that we don't actually elect our own president... I can go on...

I don't just mean electoral politics, but the politics of everyday life

This is even more true for political philosophy and the like... people who didn't get hooked on it in college aren't going to be interested in talking about it now. If anything you'll feel like you're always having to explain things or talk down to your friends...

It's a great way to strain friendships.

You should just make new friends with people who actually enjoy this stuff...
posted by wfrgms at 12:51 PM on August 18, 2008 [4 favorites]

I think the P-word scares people: they may well and truly think that you're obviously more well versed in formal capital-P Politics than they are, so why would they bother talking to you about it if they think you're not going to listen to their sheeple-like opinions? And really, very little of what happens in Washington - what people think of as politics - instantaneously and dramatically changes people's lives, so your friends may see the whole process as glacial and irrelevant.

I'd suggest doing - not discussing, but doing - things with them that are focused enough on an area of political life that doesn't break down by party lines (say, keeping the environment clean). Organize a beach cleanup, help a local school start a recycling club, go camping. You need not pass out pamphlets; the message you want them to hear - that being active in local politics actually can keep the environment clean - will come through when MegaConglomoCorp wants to pave over paradise and put up a parking lot and they find themselves signing petitions and writing letters to the editor.
posted by mdonley at 12:59 PM on August 18, 2008

My suggestion is to invite one or two over to watch a documentary, say Power of Nightmares, or the like. If that fails to spark a discussion then there isn't anything you can do, but in my experience watching docs like this sparks some very lively and interesting discussion.
posted by Vindaloo at 1:04 PM on August 18, 2008

"All politics is local." So said... Tip O'Neill (?). You can engage them by talking about things going on in Indianapolis. "What do you think about the new Wal-Mart that's going up?" "Can you believe how dirty the city water is?" "I hear there's a group trying to get our kids' textbooks to teach Creationism. What do you think about that?" Those are things they're familiar with and you can use their responses to gauge what they believe about issues such as the environment, education, zoning, church-state issues, imminent domain, etc. Then take it from there. Watch the Daily Show together over pizza and beer. You can help them see that politics doesn't have to be scary, boring, or whatever, and their opinions are just as valid as everyone else's.
posted by HotPatatta at 1:14 PM on August 18, 2008

In my group of friends, I am the politics guy (not least of all because I studied and now work in politics). When I first started getting really into politics years ago, I talked about it a lot with them, until I started to realise that it was shitting them for me to do so. I guess there's a reason people say never to talk about politics or religion in polite conversation. So I instead only talked about it with them when they ask me about it.

Which they do, quite often these days, because I am the politics guy. Like me, it sounds as though you've established you are the 'go-to' guy in your group for questions about politics, so when your friends feel like a political discussion, or have a question about politics or whatever, they'll come to you. That's when you get your political game-on, and I think you'll find it'll satisfy you more than if you tried to force a political conversation on them on a frequet basis.

As for talking about the politics of everyday life, I guess that's a bit easier. For example, if Jill gets her way over her husband Jack (again), you could make an interesting point about sexual politics. If Bob insults his best friend Roger, you could start a discussion about how interesting it is that males show affection for each other by insulting one another. But like electoral politics, you're still going to have to wait for the right moment to instigate this conversation.

One last thing. I've found that the key to keep people interested in such conversations, especially with non-political people, is to make sure you don't get too bogged down in political terms or higher-concept theories (unless they specifically ask for it). Keep it simple, and perhaps relate it to their own life, if you can.

Follow this advice and eventually I think you'll find that you'll be having a lot of the kind of conversations you want to have with your friends. Perhaps not everyday, but more often than never, certainly.
posted by Effigy2000 at 1:19 PM on August 18, 2008

In your post, replace the word "politics" with "baseball," "computer specs," or "soap opera developments" and see if you'd like your friends to do this to you. Sure you put up with it, because you love them, but if they keep it up you tell them to change the subject already!

That said, and not having done this myself, I think I'd present it as a new passion of my OWN, on which I wanted advice and suggestions. Example, "I am really getting into the idea of making my life more activist, but I can't figure out what's the best way to go about it. Do you think writing my mayor will do anything? If I stand outside Safeway with petitions is that just annoying? Does it do anything? What do you think?

If they're excitable about it, they'll jump on the bandwagon eventually. If they don't, leave them alone and continue your activist lifestyle the same as any other hobby, basically.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:27 PM on August 18, 2008

I'm somewhere in the middle between political activity and political apathy, so I've been on both sides of the coin. I've wanted some of my more political friends to shut up for like five minutes about the aldermanic elections so we can just like have fun already, but on the other hand I've been close to tearing my hair out at my apolitical friends who insist that "the government will suck no matter what" so they don't even bother paying attention or voting. It's frustrating and a strain on friendships to be on either side of the discussion.

It's unlikely you will get your new friends to want to discuss politics with you, especially on the level you desire. You might be able to persuade them to go outside on election day, but they're about as likely to take a heartfelt interest in politics as they are in metallurgy, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, tarot reading, insert whatever interest here. They might start to get interested, or they might just listen because it's something you care about and that's what friends are for.

In cliche terms, it's less about leading the horse to water and more about letting the horse know there's water available. If I were in your shoes, I wouldn't actively try and engage them in political discussions, but I'd make no secret of my political opinions and involvement (sorry, I can't go out drinking tonight, I'm attending a town hall meeting). If they inquire further, talk to them and invite them to come along, but be patient and open-minded. This way you'll position yourself as the politically knowledgeable friend who can answer their questions when they have them, and not as the sanctimonious activist who's just going to bring them down by telling them what civil rights they'll be losing this week.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:34 PM on August 18, 2008

You should just talk about what you're doing politically, and talk about how you feel about politics in its greater sense, and see who bites. But if you really feel like you need people who share this passion with you, what's to stop you attending meetings, joining a campaign, volunteering at an activist organization, or taking a class so that you meet *new* friends who share this interest? Are you limited to the new friends you've already made for some reason? How did you meet these politically-minded people in the first place? Do that again, in whatever the appropriate grown-up milieu is.
posted by nax at 1:44 PM on August 18, 2008

Can I also respectfully suggest that you don't do this? Single data point here, but I have some people that I would describe as my friends, whose personal and political philosophy is so different from my own that any discussion like this would end badly. At the same time these are great and wonderful people who I could count on in a pinch and whose company I enjoy.
posted by fixedgear at 2:00 PM on August 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

You just need to get new friends.

Your friends do not share your interests. The fact that you think your interests are more important or relevant or weighty than other interests doesn't mean that they ought to adopt your interests or that you are justified in trying to change their interests in the absence of any evidence that they want to change.

I have a friend who really thinks that I'm missing out because I'm not interested in sports. He thinks that sports create lasting social ties, and that I'm missing out on a key aspect of American society by not knowing the difference between a field goal and a--well, I know so little about sports that I couldn't come up with another sports term to contrast with "field goal." So he tries to trick me into going with him to sports bars, and tells me all about the season's sports highlights, and sends me articles about new and innovative sports thingies that he thinks might be of interest to me (they never are). The result of this is that I think he's pretty boring and I avoid spending time with him, particularly since I don't know when sports are going on, so I can never tell when it's safe to see him. But he really thinks that he's doing me a favor, because if he can just get me to see how important baseball is as a way of bridging class barriers between people and creating a sense of community, I'll be a better person and more connected to the world. I don't buy it. I'm happy the way I am, ignorant of the infield fly rule thought I may be.

Even just talking all the time about how you're about to go and protest the latest whatever-it-is-you're-hepped-up-about is likely to get old really fast. They'll see through it pretty quickly, and it won't be fun. Just enjoy your current friends for what they are, enjoy the things you have in common with them, and if you need political friends, go out and do some political stuff and make a second group of friends there to talk about politics with.
posted by decathecting at 2:10 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nth-ing new friends or a new set, at least.

Also, you can relieve some of your sociopolitical energy in mailing lists and moderated forum discussions.

I have my sociopolitical friends and my "awfully nice people" friends with whom I do not share religious or political beliefs; it's not difficult to manage social expectation between groups so long as new inductees understand that certain topics like religion or politics are off-limits with the other group.
posted by Ky at 2:26 PM on August 18, 2008

your friends are politically interested, they just don't know it.

they all have pet peeves or things they wished they were better/different/etc - that they lack is the realisation how this ties to electoral politics. that's why you see gas prices mentioned in the presidential debates.

the question to ask is "what are you going to do about x?" and to suggest when they answer they don't "have the power" that they do have the option of supporting someone who does share their view on said subject.

make it small and easy to digest. show them how their choice in who they support shapes issues directly related to them.
posted by krautland at 2:34 PM on August 18, 2008

I agree with krautland...don't frame it as politics.

But. Wait until they have something to get political about. If there isn't something for them to get political about, don't look for something. Just hang out with them and be a good friend, interact with them in the way you've done so far. Then, if something comes up that has a solution that could be political, offer it as a possibility.

If it's being political that you miss, might I suggest becoming politically active again? Seek out people who are already politically active, and become their friends as well. Go to the rallies, the talks, the documentaries. You can be political with them, and not with your friends.

I know you think they are losing out by not being political, but really they are not.
posted by Deathalicious at 3:19 PM on August 18, 2008

If they're not into it, they're not into it. You have neither the right nor the ability to change that. Don't try to be sneaky about it, or to act on the idea espoused above that they really are into politics and just don't know it. To do so would be condescending in the extreme. At best, it won't work, and at worst, you'll piss them off to the point that they wouldn't want to talk to you about anything, much less politics. I must say that with your "I want them to feel empowered" shtick, you're already heading down that road.
posted by sinfony at 3:50 PM on August 18, 2008

Lead by example. Anything beyond that doesn't just sound like preaching, it is preaching.
posted by contraption at 3:57 PM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

Sounds like you're struggling with moving back home, and realising that while your priorities haven't changed, your friends' priorities have. That doesn't mean that they're not still valuable friends. Some of them will welcome the opportunity to get back into things through you. Some of them won't want anything to do with it - and you'll need to figure out which of those are true friends (and have something else to offer apart from being like-minded politically) and which were friends of convenience just because you were into the same thing before.

In the context of a "what are you doing this weekend?" conversation, tell them about a rally you're going on, and gauge their reaction.

If they're missing being politically active, they'll say "sounds cool! I kind of miss getting involved with issue X". Invite them along!

If they're happy with not being politically active any more, they'll say "sounds cool! We're going to visit my cousin / painting the spare room / going out for a friend's birthday". Drop the politics. But don't drop the friendship.

You can't force people to become more politically active - all you can do is give them the opportunity to do so, in a non-judgmental way, and see how they react.

In any case, get involved with political activities at a local level and make some new friends.

(For me, this issue arose in relation to the music scene. Over the last couple of years, the friends I used to go to gigs with have had kids / moved away and I ended up not seeing bands much any more. And I just accepted it. Until I got back in touch with a friend from university who was still into the band scene. I started going to gigs with her, and told my other friends about it, and realised that some of them are still up for it. So I'm back where I wanted to be, along with some of my old friends. Some aren't - but they're still my friends for other reasons!)
posted by finding.perdita at 4:08 PM on August 18, 2008

Please, please ignore the people telling you not to do this. That is utter nonsense. Trying to get your friends to be politically engaged to some degree can be a good thing - if it doesn't work, it doesn't work, but giving it a shot is great. Also, saying "just make new friends" as if it's as easy as buying soap is not helpful. Making a whole new group of friends is difficult and takes time, and if you like your friends, stick with 'em (and keep making new ones at the same time).

It may simply be your friends just aren't interested. But there is some good advice here, from watching the Daily Show to movies to trying to get them into local politics in some way. Use comedy. Tell them some hilarious/awesome stories about politics. Do you know anyone cool who's run for office or anything?
posted by ORthey at 5:11 PM on August 18, 2008

your friends are politically interested, they just don't know it.

Yes, I agree with krautland on this. Everyone notices things around them that they would like to see done differently. If you talk about these things as a sort of free-form discussion, you might realize that your friends already ARE more political than you thought in ways you hadn't noticed.

Lead by example. Anything beyond that doesn't just sound like preaching, it is preaching.

Yes. This is what is was going to come in here to say. If you want your friends to pay more attention to politics, be more political active in visible ways. If it's an integral part of your life, it will naturally come up in conversation. Perhaps your friends will even join you from time to time in fighting the good fight.

At the same time, your passions won't always totally overlap with your friends' passions and that's ok. Wanting them to be more interested for the sake of discussion is fine. Wanting to turn them into politicos for YOUR sake isn't going to work.

I'd also suggest getting politically involved locally as a way to make more politically minded friends in the meantime. Keep your existing friends, get them interested, but also find a more politically active group to hang out with when you feel the urge to discuss The Issues (whatever they may be).
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:01 PM on August 18, 2008

I hate politics. I hate it because (a) I got overstuffed with it when I was a kid; (b) I'm disgusted by conflict, teams/sides and name-calling; and (c) because I have a low tolerance for repetition (e.g. hearing about the same issues over and over).

So if you want to engage someone like me, you need to understand the reasons I dislike politics. You also need to understand what won't work: berating me won't work; nagging me won't work; making me feel guilty won't work. "Leading by example" probably won't work. I have lots of friends who do lots of things. I have a friend who "leads by example" and plays the guitar. That hasn't made me start playing that guitar.

What definitely won't work is stealth. I have a friend who talks to me about whatever and tries to drop little political nuggets into the conversation. I know what she's doing. At best, it's comical; at worst, it's irritating. I TOLD her I don't like politics. She needs to stop being a con artist!

What MIGHT work is stories. I, like most people, respond to stories. I hate politics, and yet I just read "All The Presidents Men" and I was absolutely riveted. In the end, there is no such thing as politics: there are just people trying to achieve certain aims; people trying to get away with crimes; people trying to outfox each other; people trying to help each other; etc. Engage me -- and your friends -- with stories. A great story is a great story, whether it's political or not.

Make sure your story does not have a message. If I sense a story is a spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down, I turn off. The point of a story is the story itself. I read "All The President's Men" for the detective aspect of it. It was pure entertainment. But once I was done, I spent hours on ebay, reading stuff about Watergate.
posted by grumblebee at 8:06 PM on August 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

Do not proselytize. Start conversations, i.e., Did you see that NYTimes article about X, or What do you think about Y? r Did you ever wonder about the meaning of Z? Listen. Ask for others' views. Keep an open mind.
posted by theora55 at 8:37 PM on August 18, 2008

As a person who despises politics and political conversations/arguments, I think it's worth considering that maybe your non-political friends don't want to talk about politics. I understand that some people love to talk politics, but is it worth potentially alienating your current group of friends by forcing a subject that they appear to be uninterested in discussing? If it's that important to you, you can mention your passion for politics and ask them what they think of a particular candidate or issue. But realize that if your friends are not merely apathetic but deliberately disinclined to talk politics, you probably will come off as a preacher who pushes their beliefs on everyone.
posted by Mael Oui at 9:13 PM on August 18, 2008

Do not proselytize. Start conversations, i.e., Did you see that NYTimes article about X, or What do you think about Y? r Did you ever wonder about the meaning of Z?

Do not do this. Odds are that the reaction will fall into one of two categories:

1) Yes, the person saw article X. If the person does not like politics, and article X is about politics, the person probably did not read it, did not want to read it, and would not like to discuss it.

2) No, the person did not see the article, because the person does not read the New York Times or whatever other periodical is at issue.. Speaking from my own experience, I find that conspicuously mentioning the New York Times when one is not in or from New York smacks of pretension. And if these were the kind of people who read the Times, they'd probably be interested in politics (again, speaking from my own experience). Similarly with other highbrow publications that run the kind of story you're probably interested in.

Asking if somebody ever thought about the meaning of Z is a similarly treacherous path. If they have thought about it, then perhaps a good conversation will result. If they haven't thought about it, you're left with an awkward situation and a person who may or may not think you're a condescending ass.

Look. You know these people. None of us does. If you know that they are not into politics, do not try to get them into it. It is a very big world, and there are plenty of people who will share that particular interest. If you otherwise enjoy the company of these friends, then enjoy that company without trying to foist an interest on them that you know they don't have. There is no law against having more than one group of friends. There is always the internet.
posted by sinfony at 10:27 PM on August 18, 2008

It almost sounds like you could insert a name of a religion for politics and have essentially the same question.

I find that most people who are passionate about politics are very set in their ways and essentially enjoy either berating people from the "other side" or complaining and commiserating with others on the same side.

Although I find politics interesting, and enjoy debate, I grow tired of conversations with overtly political people as it seems like the same message being repeated over and over again.

I used to work in the talk show department for a campus radio station, and there were political shows from both the right and the left, with people who were really passionate about politics and supposedly wanted to encourage debate.

Most of these people were so vehemently angry at something or other (e.g. anti-feminists, anti-corporate, anti-war, anti-whatever) that it often seemed to stem from some deep seeded personal issues, rather than anything political.

That being said, I love having discussions with open minded people, people who can change my mind, offer a different perspective, and curious, thought provoking discussions about all things under the sun and what it means to be a human in this world.

But say the word "politics" and you are very likely to get my defenses up. Just as long as you're not going about it for the purposes of being a gadfly or purposely trying to push people's buttons, you're probably OK.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 12:13 AM on August 19, 2008

One other data point from a politics-hater: many of my friends who like politics become like kids in a schoolyard when they're being political -- especially when they are talking about the other side. The jokes and insults are just one step above nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah.

I'm talking about intelligent people who can and do talk seriously about politics. So they don't do the schoolyard thing all the time. But they do it.

I don't get it, because if they're talking about other stuff that makes them mad or excited, they don't become nine-years-old. They just do this with politics.

I can only guess that a sort of political culture encourages them to do this, and that they enjoy the childish outlet. For instance, if they are liberal, they enjoy having a figure like Bush that they can unabashedly make fun of -- egged on by all their friends.

I don't begrudge them this. I don't think I'm above it. It's just not my thing. Yet sometimes people have tried to make me more political by engaging me in this stuff. It's like they're saying, "I bet you hate politics because you think it's too serious. Well, here's something you'll enjoy! A picture of Dick Cheney fucking a moose!" If I suggested to these same people that we all watch "Weekend and Bernies," they'd cringe. They only get all lowbrow when they're making political jokes.
posted by grumblebee at 5:51 AM on August 19, 2008

Well, the issues is really do you want to talk politics with them or do you want them to be engaged with you in active participation in political activity? If it's the former, big surprise here, you have conversations with them and when something comes up political, you mention it. I think preaching or "trying to convince people" gets weak unless you find yourself in the midst of the standard "big political discussion," but if you talk about what you're thinking in an entertaining and engaging way, whether it is about music, computer specs, or baseball, and anyway can plug in to the conversation. I know little about baseball, but we can all talk about anything if it's not dripping in minutia and with penalties and condescension for not knowing stuff.

But maybe we're lucky and that's not what you want. Maybe you want to your friends to be politically active with you. If that's the case, pretty much IGNORE the rest of the comments here. The secret is you don't try to convince people; rather, you engage and you invite people along. The mall and DVDs get boring after awhile. They'll either say "thanks, but no thanks," or they'll come along, and if they come along and there is something that they can do, ask them if they want to do it. You go to a meeting with your friend who knows about X and if X comes up, you get their opinion. You go to a demonstration against Y, your roommate tags along and you go get beers afterward. The friends who haven't come along will probably tag along eventually to see what the hubbub is about. And you'll be surprised: some people will tune out quick, but others will surprise you and engage.

I think a lot of the comments above, no offense, are the products of the newly politicized who go around trying to get everyone to "see the light." Don't be that person because they turn everyone off. Say what you think (like if you see something on TV and you comment on it while watching it with them), but don't go in with the agenda of convincing your friends. If they get curious, and ask, tell them your ideas, but the key is to just get them to attend. Most political activity is actually enjoyable and as long as you curb the clique people, you should have fun. What's wild and crazy about this is if you do it, and you're honest and chill, it'll snowball. And then we'll overthrow the government.
posted by history is a weapon at 8:00 AM on August 19, 2008

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