A guide to productive political discourse

Chris Forrester, Staff Writer

The holiday season is once again upon us, and with it comes a plethora of opportunities for potential tension between family members. This election season has been a particularly polarizing and inflammatory one, and has been the source of an abundance of heightened tension and numerous disputes. Many have expressed a level of distress with regards to the inevitability of having to discuss politics with relatives over the holiday season, in fear of potential arguments.  Unfortunately, there’s not much to be done about petty bickering between your mom and your grumpy uncle, but when it comes to political discourse, there’s loads to be done to ensure minimal friction.

Perhaps the most significant thing to keep in mind when talking politics, no matter the views of any party involved, is that it’s unlikely you’ll be able to change any minds. Regardless of how you feel about others’ views, they have pretty concrete reasons for believing what they believe, and they’ve likely taken the time and effort to consider the ramifications and implications of those beliefs, so approaching political discourse with the objective of changing someone’s mind about a given topic is not only aimless, but potentially harmful, as it puts all involved parties at odds with one another. Rather than approaching a politically-charged discussion with the intent of changing someone’s political alignments on a particular topic, approach the discourse with the intent to understand this person and why they feel a particular way on a deeper level. Positive debates do not typically change any minds, but they do foster a better understanding of the involved parties’ perspectives on current events, and it should be this that all of the participants in the discussion strive for.

Furthermore, it’s crucial to be respectful of others’ views. You don’t have to agree with any belief or ideology that you don’t fully support, but it’s imperative that all involved parties in a political discussion respect one another’s viewpoints, no matter what they are. Respecting others’ beliefs and understanding their point of view go hand in hand; as you gain deeper insight into why someone feels a particular way, it will become progressively easier to understand and respect their beliefs, which will in turn facilitate better– and smoother– discourse.

By respecting and understanding someone’s beliefs and the reasoning behind them, all persons involved in the discussion can better ensure a calmer and more respectful platform for debate. There are certainly outliers (of sort) to the “respect” rule; beliefs that are inherently or implicitly racist, homophobic and/or sexist do not necessarily warrant the utmost of respect, as they themselves are inherently disrespectful, but it’s important when considering them in a discussion that once again, a person’s views are shaped predominantly by their worldviews and life experiences, which means that there is legitimate reasoning behind any view, no matter how racist, sexist, or homophobic it is. So when the “racism/sexism/homophobia” can of worms is opened during a discussion, it’s still important to maintain at least a basic respect for the parties involved in the discussion.

There’s a legitimate distinction– one that is often not made– between saying racist things, entertaining racist notions, and supporting racist political ideologies and legitimately being a racist. Make this distinction. It’s one thing to politely explain why you feel that a particular notion is inherently or implicitly racist, and another entirely to jump past this and accuse someone of being a racist. Do not demonize someone for their political beliefs; it’s the quickest and easiest way to alienate them and to turn the discussion into a shouting match. It’s crucial to at least make an attempt to separate a person’s character from their views, as character can influence political worldviews, but views do not determine character.

If you find yourself unable to make this distinction or unable to maintain respect for someone’s views if issues like racism, sexism, or homophobia come up, or if the discussion of any topic becomes too heated, it’s perfectly respectable (and in fact often encourageable) to make the mutual decision to stop discussing a particular topic. Steering clear of certain topics is not necessarily the best way to maintain positive discourse, as it’s mostly just a means of brushing certain things under the rug than anything else, but by following the basic guidelines outlined here and keeping in mind that the most important part of good discourse is to strive to achieve a mutual understanding of the views of all involved parties, one can maintain positive (or at least argument-free) discussions.