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How to have political disagreements without ruining relationships
If you've lost a friend or a loved one to political disagreements, you're not alone. A 2021 study by the American Enterprise Institute showed that a full 15% of adults have ended a friendship over politics. Many more Americans have friendships or relationships with loved ones that are on the ropes due to political disagreements. But there is a way to have political disagreements that build your relationships with your loved ones rather than erode them.
It's not always easy in practice, but it is simple in concept: First, state your values, but don't attack the other person's values. Second, reframe the discussion as a search for ways to fix societal problems.
Let's say that you're a conservative, and your mother-in-law is a progressive who supports the application of critical race theory in schools and educational materials. She asks you, "How can you oppose teaching anti-racism in schools? I guess you just don't care about ending racism."
In this case, you’d respond with something like, "I actually care about ending racism quite a lot. In fact, it's because I want to create a more pluralistic and diverse society that I don't think we should embrace the core tenets of critical race theory. The best evidence I've seen suggests that it would erect more walls between people who look different. I could be wrong on the facts, of course, but that's where my heart is on this issue."
This approach is effective for two reasons. First, it disarms the other person's presuppositions. A common reaction to the hypothetical mother-in-law's criticism is to go on offense and say something like, "Critical race theory perpetuates racism. If you really cared about ending racism, you wouldn't push for teaching CRT in schools." This is ineffective, however, because it gets the other person's guard up. Insulting someone's values engages their partisan brain—which in these scenarios essentially acts as a combination of soldier and press secretary. Like a soldier, the partisan brain is concerned with defeating an enemy: "This person is attacking me, therefore I need to crush them." Like a press secretary, the partisan brain is mostly focused on telling a story that makes its own side look good: "This person is attacking me, is therefore a bad person, and as a result I can write off any criticisms they make of my side."
Engaging the partisan brain shuts down conversation. It widens gulfs, rather than narrowing them. If solving problems is your goal, you’ll want to avoid creating more distance between you and your interlocutor.
This phenomenon isn't unique to political disagreements. Geoff Laughton, a relationship coach and author of two bestselling books on relationships, notes that "many of the breakdowns that happen in romantic relationships are tied to the filters that are in people’s listening (put in place during our childhoods) that have an agenda that determines whose side their partner’s on within the relationship. This is being decided by these self-perceptions that frequently get projected on our partners when we’re upset or feeling judged (whether the other person is indeed judging or not)." In contrast, positively stating your own values, rather than condemning the other person's values—especially if you can articulate how your values are shared—puts the person you’re talking to at ease.
It's hard to attack someone who's not attacking you back, and refusing to play offense can help the other person keep or regain a cool head. They may even regret attacking your values in the first place, creating the possibility of more respectful conversations in future. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. did to great effect during the Civil Rights Movement. He led protests and sit-ins in Birmingham, Alabama, knowing that these demonstrations would rouse the ire of Alabama Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor. Importantly, when Connor ordered vicious attacks on protestors, including setting police dogs on children and blasting protesters with fire hoses, King's people remained peaceful and practiced nonviolence.
Had the protestors sunk to the level of their attackers, the watching eyes of the American public would have seen what looked like a violent mob. They would have seen two sides tearing each other apart, and many prejudiced people would have felt that their worst instincts about African Americans were being confirmed. Instead, viewers across the United States watched with horror and anger as peaceful protesters were beaten and mauled. That revulsion was essential to changing the hearts and minds of the American public, and Birmingham was a watershed moment for the Civil Rights Movement.
The key thing to remember is that, when you're in an argument over politics, your conversing partner is both Connor and the watching public. They are two people inside one head; one part fighting with you, the other observing and preserving their image and reputation. If you fight back in kind, both parts will think that their attacks on you are justified. If you choose nonviolence, however, then the other person may begin to rethink their own tactics.
The second reason this approach works is because it positively reframes the conversation. In a popular TED Talk, decision-making expert Julia Galef identifies two mindsets that each of us can adopt called “the soldier” and “the scout.”
The soldier has one goal: to win the battle, protect their side, and defeat the enemy. The soldier isn't interested in shades of gray or in finding common ground; he's interested in winning. Given our tribal roots, the soldier mindset is highly adaptive. When you're at war with a rival tribe, letting down your sword to mull over how your opponents might actually have a point is a good way to get killed.
The scout, however, has a different goal: to understand. She wants to find the truth, because getting an accurate picture of the situation—whether it’s the terrain, the location and numbers of the enemy, or the weather—is essential to helping her side succeed. The scout approaches the problems of the world dispassionately, like a researcher, unblinkered by ideological biases or motivated reasoning.
You may be thinking that times are tough, the stakes are high, and the soldier is what is needed right now. But, in the words of Abraham Lincoln during perhaps the greatest period of strife in our nation’s history, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” If Lincoln can think that during the Civil War, we can certainly think it now.
By modeling humility and voicing a sincere desire for the best solution to the problem, as I exemplified earlier with my hypothetical mother-in-law, you become a scout rather than a soldier. Even if the conversation began in a more hostile way, taking the role of the scout encourages the other person to follow suit. Your refusal to reciprocate their hostility will likely give them pause, and may cause them to shift their behavior to match yours.
When you act as a scout, you can shift the discussion away from the supposed moral deficiencies of your opponent and toward a disagreement on implementation. It helps you avoid overly simplistic framings and helps you find common ground. This framework is far more constructive and conducive to relationship-building and conflict resolution than the soldier approach, and it is needed now more than ever.
A 2021 survey by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia has reported that "roughly 4 in 10 (41%) of Biden and half (52%) of Trump voters at least somewhat agree that it’s time to split the country, favoring blue/red states seceding from the union." A vast number of Democrats and Republicans can no longer stomach even being in the same country together. The chasm between political and ideological opponents runs deep today, cutting through American homes, families and friend groups, workplaces and romantic relationships.
I firmly believe we can bridge that chasm. But it starts with learning how to talk to one another in a more productive and constructive way.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
In keeping with our mission to promote a common culture of fairness, understanding, and humanity, we are committed to including a diversity of voices and encouraging compassionate and good-faith discourse.
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