Swanson: How to Talk Politics at the Holiday Table

As we steel ourselves to go home and interact with family members for the winter holiday season, we know there are three topics that you don’t bring up at the dinner table — money, religion and politics. You love these people and don’t want to ruin the relationship by challenging their lifestyle choices, spiritual beliefs and political opinions. There’s a stereotype that these conversations are aggressive and judgmental, and no one wants to have to justify their understanding of the world and reality during a family event.

This is especially true during these divisive, polarizing times. Everyone wants to believe that they understand the world, but everyone knows other people who don’t see things the same way. Nearly 20% of Americans don’t believe in man-contributed climate change. Over 60% of Americans are certain that a higher power exists, with an additional 20% being fairly certain. Nearly 30% of voters will vote for Donald Trump no matter who the Democratic nominee is and around 40% of Americans do not support the impeachment inquiry. We’re also prone to colorful beliefs like conspiracy theories, and 15% of Americans believe that the government is working with the media to implement secret mind-control technology into television broadcasts.

 

Living in Alternate Realities

There is varying evidence for each of these positions, and many Americans currently struggle to draw from the same set of “facts.” Roughly 97% of climate scientists agree that man-made climate change is real, yet a fifth of Americans are adamant it is a hoax. There is no scientific evidence that provides the existence of God, yet 80% of Americans have faith. There may not be consensus on the harm caused by these different perceptions, but it’s clear we no longer share the same reality.

If you’re on the left — and the black sheep in an otherwise conservative family — like I am, you’ve probably scoffed off the 30% of Americans who remain loyal to President Trump despite everything that’s occurred in the last three years. Yet, if the last three years haven’t pushed them away, nothing will. Despite their questionable rationale, these people are family. Is there really no hope for common ground? I would argue that people’s minds can be changed and political conversation does not have to be avoided during the holidays.

 

Changing Minds According to Socrates

It’s futile to try “fix” other people, even when you know that you’re right and they are wrong, because some level of difference will always exist. Psychologists have known for decades now that facts don’t necessarily change people’s minds. People oftentimes walk away more convinced of their positions after an argument despite you bringing the receipts. If facts don’t work, what can? Let’s turn the clock back a couple of thousand years to ancient Greece, the birthplace of western philosophy and the cradle of critical thought. “To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.”

Let’s talk about Socrates. Socrates’ greatest contribution to philosophy is the eponymous Socratic Method. It is a tried-and-true method for challenging the logic someone uses to arrive at their position. An assertion is made and Socrates asks for the premises that support this conclusion. Socrates then uses these same premises to arrive at different conclusions, typically ones that the other would not agree with. After presenting how the logic can be hijacked to support other, perhaps outlandish assertions, he would ask, “Is this original assertion really as definite as the other believes it to be?”

This is critical thinking, and it forces us to question why we believe the things we believe and how we can lead ourselves astray. It is also the key to changing minds. People are not usually receptive to having their beliefs challenged, but also want to believe that they are reasonable people who can change their minds when presented with new information. The simplest way to do that is to provide them with our contradictory conclusions. If they take to it, great. If they don’t, it’s on them for not seeing reason. By passively challenging the logic of a conclusion rather than its merits, we create a conversational atmosphere that isn’t hostile and allows the other person to see things from a different light.

 

The Method In Practice

If you’re home for Christmas, you might run into an uncle you haven’t seen since last year. You may know this uncle’s stances run counter to yours. Perhaps your uncle does not believe there is a gun control problem in America and thinks the solution to school shootings is to have more guns on campus. You may have had shouting matches with him in the past, but now you’re ready to use critical thinking to push back on his stance.

You would begin by asking him if he’s willing to have a conversation about guns on campus. He accepts, believing there is nothing you can say to change his mind. He claims guns are necessary for self-defense, that bad people will always obtain guns and the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. But if campuses allow students and teachers with guns, how can one determine a good or bad guy before it’s too late?

He may argue that a person should obtain a permit to carry a gun on campus. But how can you determine whether someone with a gun on campus has a permit? Should armed police constantly be stopping people to check permits? Couldn’t a bad guy just take a two-week-long class, buy all the guns he can and come strapped the week after to do his evil deeds? By challenging the implications of his logic, be curious rather than aggressive. If you can engage someone without putting them on the defensive, they’re more willing to examine the cracks in their logic.

 

Conclusion

We might be stubborn, but we should be able to recognize the times when we are wrong. Remembering this can help us cut back on the vitriol and create more constructive conversations. Approaching these conversations with a level head can avoid shouting matches. In these divisive times, we need to talk to each other more, not avoid the discussion altogether. The place to start is with the ones we love the most. If you can do that without spoiling the holidays, you can do it with anyone.

 

g.swanson@dailyutahchronicle.com

@gavingitsgud

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