‘Tis the season when Facebook posts fly in a partisan frenzy, when attack ads saturate the airwaves, when campaign signs blossom in yards like oxalis. And it’s a good bet that at some time before the year is over, you will have locked horns with someone over matters political. If you don’t want to say something that you will regret later, or that will cause hard feelings, or that will make you sound very stupid (whether you realize it or not), here are some pointers that you’d do well to keep in mind:
1. Don’t talk in soundbites
In any election cycle (and indeed at other times) you’ll hear people say that the country needs a “change of direction”. Well, driving it off a cliff would certainly qualify. Is that what they have in mind?
“Crooked Hillary”? “Idiot Trump”? How about saying exactly what it is you don’t like about them, and being factual rather than repeating hearsay. (More about that in a moment.)
I just heard a political extremist I won’t name – well, okay, it was Mike Huckabee – comment about how President Obama has “apologized for America”. That’s an allegation that has been made many, many times by many many people, but it’s never been true even once. Wouldn’t it be a much more productive dialogue if people shunned such expressions and discussed what really happened?
Next time you engage someone in a discussion about politics, then just as an experiment if nothing else, try avoiding the use of any of those common catch-phrases you’ve heard on cable TV. It may be a challenge; it may even be impossible. But the effort will be worth it. Using clichés and soundbites only shows that you know how to be a mimic.
2. Give up being a missionary
Unless you really like asking for trouble, don’t bother trying to convert other people to your infallible beliefs. They all have infallible beliefs of their own, and chances are they’re even trying to convert you. The sooner you accept this, the better.
3. Don’t take it – or give it – personally
Americans have a distinct tendency to fuse themselves inextricably to their convictions. As a result, if you criticize someone’s beliefs in any way, they’re likely to take it as a slap in the face. To be sure, it’s also common for people to actually express dissent in ad hominem terms: “you’re an idiot” rather than “I see a problem with that argument”.
You’d be well advised to avoid either trap. And if someone hurls an insult at you, you’d be well advised not to respond at all. Learn to turn the other cheek – the one with the deaf ear attached.
4. Ask, don’t argue
When we hear someone utter something that clashes with our infallible beliefs, our instinct is usually to contradict, challenge, argue. Which just leads to more argument. Rinse, lather, repeat. It would be much more constructive to ask them questions that will get to the bottom of why they believe what they do.
Example: “If you believe that government is useless, does that mean you’re okay with slavery being legal? How would we make it illegal without government intervention? How would we make anything illegal – what would keep people from stealing your property, burning down your house or killing you if they have no one to penalize them? Ah, but what if they have bigger guns than you? So if we eliminated government, everyone would magically adopt biblical principles to live by? Who would decide which interpretations of whose Bible to adopt? How would it be enforced, and by whom? Do you not realize that theocracy is also a form of government?”
Socrates was one of the wisest men who ever lived. And a great part of that wisdom lay in his phenomenal skill in asking questions – questions that would nudge people into seeing the flaws in their own convictions. We can’t all be as good at it as he was, but we don’t have to be. It rarely takes more than 3 or 4 questions to produce a reductio ad absurdum. That is, assuming the other person’s position really is flawed. If not, you might actually learn something. Either way, you win – which is something you’ll never do arguing.
5. Go to the (original) source
You’ve surely seen plenty of the wacky rumors and accusations making the rounds: Obama is a Kenyan Muslim Nazi who wants to take away your guns; Bush was complicit in 9-11; the Clintons have had people killed; the U.N. controls the national parks; vaccines cause autism; Benghazi and emails. It doesn’t matter how many times these things get shot to hell, they keep coming back like Arnold in The Terminator. But unlike him, they’re made of very flimsy stuff.
I used the example of Obama’s alleged “apology tour” above because it serves more than one purpose. So here it is again. In this Age of Google, it would not be terribly hard for most people to dig up what the president really did say. But instead, people are content to just play telephone, cutting and pasting the same memes passed on by someone else from someone else from someone else.
You deserve better. Be sure before you share. If you can’t quote an original source, at least quote a source you’ve consistently found to be reliable. And that doesn’t mean just someone who’s consistently said what you want to hear.
Time-saving hint: after you’ve heard all about Obama apologizing for America, try Googling something like “Obama did not apologize for America”. A friend of mine once commented that whenever he read a book of a political nature, he’d then read one on the same topic from an opposing viewpoint. Not a bad habit.
6. Remember that the world is bigger than your yard
If you are out of a job, you may be under the impression that the economy is in the toilet. If you have been mugged, you may believe that crime is rocketing upward. (Neither, in fact, has been true for quite some time.) We all tend to view the world through our own lenses, but try not to go overboard. Try to evaluate policies, politicians and others by what they have to offer the whole country – or even the whole world – rather than by how well they conform to your worldview.
7. Leave Hitler out of it
In the early days of the Internet, attorney Mike Godwin half-humorously proposed an observation that he called Godwin’s Law, which basically states that any online discussion will eventually lead to a mention of Hitler, and when it does, the discussion should be considered over.
If that’s the case, many people these days terminate the debate before it even gets started. It’s become a Pavlovian response among many people to invoke Der Fuhrer every time they encounter a politician or policy they don’t like.
Hitler came into the world to be the ultimate evil, a last resort in rhetorical evaluation rather than a first impulse in divisive polemic. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of other hyperbolic references: the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon.
Write this down: NOBODY IS LIKE HITLER. (Although certainly there are people who behave like – and even are – fans of his.) And he’s been in the spotlight long enough. Let’s give him a rest.