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politics

Is It Possible to Talk Politics Without Being an Utter Asshole?

Here are some tips.

by Arielle Dollinger
Jun 15 2017, 6:23pm

Photo illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

Spend enough time among the 20-something set on the dating app Bumble, and you'll eventually run into profile bios that make one thing clear: Trump lovers need not apply.

"Swipe right for the alt-right. Just kidding, could you imagine?"

"If you voted for the big Cheeto in 2016, kindly swipe left."

"Dislikes cold weather, mean stuff, donald trump, patriarchy"

"Man seeking woman to help survive the upcoming 4-year dystopian nightmare trumpster fire."

"No Trump supporters (unless you're just looking for sex. In which case, Trump supporters preferred.)"

It's not surprising politics have seeped even into the online dating sphere. These days, ideology is perceived as shorthand for personality types. Republican and Democrat often seem more like separate cultures than competing political parties. Having a civil conversation with someone from the other side is challenge enough; dating someone from the other side is unthinkable.

But when did political discourse heat up to its current degree? Or has it always been that way?

"There have been many times when American political dialogue has been as vitriolic as it seems to be today," said Michael Barone, a political analyst, journalist and co-author of the Almanac of American Politics. The specific eras he's thinking of are the 1790s, the 1800 election, and the Civil War—pretty far removed from contemporary life.

"There was a strain in historians' thought, peaking in the 1950s, that we were a consensus-minded nation with no real ideological differences," Barone said. "That was arguably one reasonable definition of the politics of the 1945-67 postwar era: though you could hear a lot of bitter partisanship along management/union lines if you listened to people in the Detroit area when I was growing up there in the 1950s."


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Today, however, ideological debates are baked into everything from where you get your news to where you shop. And political discussions seem to go one of three ways, whether online or off:

  1. Everyone agrees with each other because we've built social circles that don't include anyone who doesn't share the same views as the rest of the group.
  2. People get very angry.
  3. People with opposing beliefs speak to each other in a way that is productive. Each explains his or her viewpoint, and both walk away understanding the other side a little bit more, even if they haven't changed their minds.

It rarely goes the third way.

"In a liberal democracy, you're supposed to be discussing and debating and arguing about things," said Matthew Feinberg, a Toronto-based social psychologist. "The problem is when it becomes uncivil, when there's no room for debate, when it's just a yelling match."

Feinberg's research investigates the way people form groups and societies through the lens of morality and political attitudes. Many "hot button issues," Feinberg said, are grounded in morality.

"The problem that we find is that most people are going to speak in terms of their own morality," he said. "When we have these moral convictions, as they're called, it's really difficult to recognize that somebody else has a different notion of morality, or different conviction on the same topic."

One person, for instance, might think that putting his or her own country first is a moral virtue, whereas another might moralize fairness to other countries. Those two concepts sometimes conflict with each other, so two people with opposing views might clash and offend each other.

In their research, Feinberg and his colleagues have explored an idea termed "moral reframing." The theory is that the best way to try to reason with people of opposing viewpoints is to appeal to their own moral values.

"Think, 'well, how does this other person think, in terms of moral terms, and then speak to those moral terms," Feinberg advised. "You have to speak to the other side's moral values, and not to your own moral values."

When Feinberg and his colleagues asked liberals to make an argument for the legalization of same-sex marriage, those liberals typically talked about equality and fairness—how could anyone deny another person's right to marriage? These arguments, however, didn't do much to persuade conservatives.

The researchers reframed the argument like this: Same sex couples are productive patriotic, proud Americans, who contribute as much to society as anybody else does. These people love America, too.

Conservatives responded better that way, Feinberg said. According to his research, the more people try to use moral reframing to communicate, the more empathetic and potentially respectful to the other side they become.

"You humanize them, even if you disagree with them," he said. "Prior to that, you just thought they were crazy or ignorant or evil."

Remembering that the other side favors a different set of moral principles is one way to keep political debate civil; but as any internet user can attest, politeness and kindness often go unreciprocated.

"Have an exit strategy," suggested Daniel Post Senning, of the Emily Post Institute, the great-great grandson of the late author Emily Post. "If it does become argumentative, combative—if it starts to be, frankly, counterproductive—if you're not building accord, if you're not closing any gaps, if you're really just creating more friction, be willing to cede the last word."

So what about those Bumble ideologues?

"By making it so salient, and advertising this, and emphasizing it so much, they're actually perpetuating the problem," Feinberg said, the "problem" being "this notion that America's polarized and I can't even talk to anybody that's on the other side."

Kenny, 24, who asked that he be identified only by his first name, writes in his Bumble bio that he loves the Mets and craft beer, is "looking for the Ginny to my Harry," and oh, by the way, "Bernie would have won."

"Politics should never be taboo so long as it's respectful," said Kenny, who majored in political science in college. "I love talking politics no matter someone's political affiliation."

And he has talked politics to Bumble matches — most often after numbers have been exchanged. His rules? No personal attacks, and try to appeal to the other person's values and goals.

Another Bumble user, who requested anonymity, said it seems more socially acceptable to mention his anti-Republican sentiments in a bio now, "during this #resistance."

While Feinberg conceded that it is logical to seek out potential partners with similar values, the early presentation of political affiliation can backfire. A country splintered into clusters of like-minded people is a country whose citizens do not know how to interact with anyone whose beliefs contradict their own.

Having productive, respectful, political conversations is about moderating volume, intensity, and the amount of information being thrown around, Post Senning said. It's about having a willingness to pay attention to how your words are being received, and whether the other person is uncomfortable.

"It sounds refreshingly simple, and yet it's remarkably difficult to do," he said.

And if it proves impossible, Post Senning and etiquette expert Diane Gottsman agreed you should just get out.

"You can always exit gracefully," Post Senning said. "You know, 'That's not the way I see it, but I so appreciate your willingness to talk about it, share that perspective with me.'"

Gottsman suggests a few canned phrases: "It's certainly entertaining," "It's certainly interesting," or the old standby, "I have a project I need to get done, if you'll excuse me."

Arielle Dollinger is a New York-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Forbes.com, Newsday, Long Islander Newspapers, the Arizona Daily Star, and Long Island Pulse. Follow her on Twitter .