Whatever your political opinion, everyone should agree that a more informed and more engaged population is a good thing. For that to happen, we need to figure out a way of talking about politics without coming across like screaming lunatics.
In November 2016, I was travelling around the US with my girlfriend and so we were there in the build up to (and the aftermath of) the 2016 election. Needless to say, politics came up a lot. In hostels filled with young 20-somethings from across the world (albeit, mainly economically developed countries), political arguments bubbled up as people threw facts at each other.
Facts are a vital tool for debate; that much is obvious. Still, like every great tool, they need to be used properly. The temptation is to bombard your fellow interlocutor with the facts that you have so as to bury them with information. You already have an answer to every counter-argument they have with a list of statistics you’ve memorised and you know exactly why you’re right.
Everything is going great until the person you’re talking with pulls up a different fact, from a study you’ve not heard of, and it throws you because it upsets your worldview. The kneejerk reaction is a response that everyone should avoid:“That’s a lie.”
“If you’re going to assume I’m lying, then there’s no point in us having this conversation.”
If you ever doubt what someone is saying to you, your job is to research the truth for yourself. It’s true that sometimes people are wrong because they misinterpret information, and sometimes people are wrong because they misremember information. And yes, sometimes people will straight up lie to you.
Still, you have to start each conversation with the assumption that people won’t lie to you. Politely fact-checking is one thing, but assuming someone else is a liar just because you don’t agree with them is quite another.Society is built on trust. Restaurant owners trust that customers will pay the full amount before leaving; car owners trust that engineers have built sturdy roads and bridges; and debaters need to trust that the other isn’t lying to them. Otherwise, “there’s no point in us having this conversation.”
This might seem like a complete contradiction, but it really isn’t. When we’re debating with someone we disagree with, we tend to assume that they’re wrong. When we’re debating with someone we agree with, we tend to assume that they’re right. This is confirmation bias,1 while it’s something that everyone is guilty of, that doesn’t make it okay.
When we read the news, we’re often just looking for the information that helps us to confirm our existing beliefs. It requires less mental effort to think, “I am right and they are wrong” than to recognise that the reality is much more nuanced. We tend to fact-check when we think people are lying, but we don’t tend to do it when we think people are telling the truth. What we should be doing is fact-checking indiscriminately. If you give every statistic you agree with the same dose of healthy scepticism that you give every statistic you do agree with, you’ll begin to understand why other people think the way they think.
Bias exists everywhere and news outlets are both the agents of this phenomenon and the victims of it. News outlets are businesses. Imagine you owned a business whose job was to report the events of the day. You would end up expressing your opinion on the news you were reporting even if you tried not to. Every word you choose to use (or not use) and every detail you choose to focus on (or not focus on) reveals your bias. Even if all the words you say are true and all the details you focus on are relevant, your bias is still there.The idea of “objective” or “neutral” news is a fallacy. Objectivity exists in the realms of physics and mathematics, but the real world (and the language we use to express ourselves in the real world) is too chaotic and fluid to be understood objectively.In linguistics and computing, this is known as the symbol grounding problem2 and it’s essentially the reason why we’ve not been able to create consciousness in robots. To simplify, the symbol grounding problem is the notion that no matter how basic you make a symbol, people are still able to disagree about its meaning. Take this symbol, for example:
Is it the letter “I” or is it the letter “l”? Or is it an image? If so, an image of what? Is it a pole? Is it a building? Is it a road?
There’s no correct answer. That symbol could be a whole host of things depending on the context or on your point of view. When you realise how difficult it is to get people to agree on what one symbol means, then you can understand why things become problematic when those symbols become words, those words become sentences, and those sentences become political news coverage.
It sounds obvious enough, and yet so much televised political debate features politicians belittling other politicians. From Prime Minister’s questions in the UK to the primary and presidential debates in the US, politicians are bent on insulting each other.
We all know the reason for this; they’re trying to make the other person look weak in order to gain votes. Evidently, it must work. Otherwise, they wouldn’t keep doing it. But why do we do it? Why do we insult each other when we talk about politics?
As an unashamed science-fiction fan, I am reminded of an episode of Doctor Who. When trying to stop yet another alien from destroying the planet, he pleads with them: “I just want you to think. Do you know what thinking is? It’s just a fancy word for changing your mind.” When we talk politics, that’s all we’re trying to do deep down. All of the heightened rhetoric, all of the grandstanding, and all of the raised voices: it’s all just to try and get someone else to change their mind.
In that sense, political debate and marketing is the same thing: the art of persuasion. As someone who works for a digital marketing agency, I have long known that nastiness doesn’t persuade anyone of anything. People don’t choose Coca-Cola over Pepsi because Coca-Cola said that the people who drink Pepsi are idiots who don’t know what’s “really” going on. Rather, Coca-Cola wooed people by talking about their product’s benefits.
Good marketing is about creating a nice image for a product or service, whereas good political debate should be about a lot more than that. Sometimes this is not the case. Sometimes politicians are charming and polite and extremely courteous to the opposition while also being utterly incorrect. As an informed voter, your job is to see through that.
By extension, if a friend is being uncharming and impolite and extremely discourteous to you, they might still have a valid point. Don’t rise to their anger, but do engage with their ideas.
Debating politics is hard and so most of us avoid it completely. You might think that you’re debating politics because you share something online and then talk about it with your friends. Heck, sometimes you might talk about a story with your friends offline as well. You express your opinion and they express their opinion. That’s debate, right?
Possibly. Though, chances are, your friends have pretty much the same political views you do. Sure, a few of them might have dissenting views here and there, but most of the time you agree. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be friends.
Even if this is not the case offline, social media helps to create bubbles3 which ensure that this is the case online. Facebook, for example, only shows you content from the people and pages that you like and engage with.4 If you don’t like it or engage with it, it won’t be shown to you. In other words, if you do happen to have a friend who has views that you don’t agree with, you’ll rarely see those views on your Facebook feed.
The only real solution to this, aside from not using social media, is to engage with the other side. Leap across the political divide rather than settling comfortably into your own biases and simply dismissing the other side as full of crazies. It’s easy enough to throw around the word “extreme” when describing someone’s political views, but they probably don’t see their own views as extreme. To them, you’re the extremist.
This is a philosophy created and endorsed by the Vlogbrothers5 and it’s essential to discussing politics. In order to have better conversations about politics, you need to imagine others complexly. Understand that the process that led someone else to their political opinion is as complicated and nuanced as the process that led you to your political opinion.If you manage to do that, alongside everything else I’ve mentioned, let me know how you managed it. You’ll be a bigger and better person than I am for sure. What’s more, you just might be able to debate politics without being a complete jerk.