In an effort to keep most of my friendships intact through the rest of this year, I am trying to avoid arguing about politics publicly on the internet. Others can do this well, but I personally find that I tend to become overly emotional.
I've chosen instead to engage in political discussions privately. And I've drawn a little analogy that has helped me create meaningful dialogue in most any kind of argument (and keep my emotions in check.)
Like the Socratic method, this approach will focus on the questions. Think of questions like balloons and opinions like darts.
Opinions are hard things that we tend to throw, but questions are soft things that we can float.
In my experience, the basic problem with many political arguments is that they're all darts. Very few genuine questions are asked. And even more rarely does anyone admit to uncertainty.
In most arguments, both parties try to build their case by throwing all their opinions at each other as quickly as possible. This kind of argument is unfocused because there's no target – both sides are simply trying one-up the other and seem more certain.
This has often ended in me saying something I regret. The more rapidly opinions are slung around, the more likely that some of those opinions are aimed at the person as emotions rise and parties become more entrenched.
And then we apologize to each other. (Or worse, we don't.)
I've found that the most productive arguments I have are focused on the balloons rather than the darts. In these conversations, I ask more questions. The more the better – particularly questions I don't know the answers to, questions that will call on their expertise. This sets the tone of the discussion by admitting, "I have more to learn. Teach me something."
This focuses the conversation like an invisible moderator. It's holding up a target and saying, "Hit this." It gives the other person a chance to teach me something or even to send me an article so I can read more about their view. It slows us down and gives us room to admit uncertainty on some of the finer points.
Granted, we often disagree on when a question has been sufficiently "answered." We might, say, cite different statistics on the success of a policy. But the more questions we ask, the more we home in on the points upon which we disagree, and this keeps the darts aimed at those points (and away from each other.)
And here is where I think we might break from the Socratic method because I know we are going to land on different conclusions – and that's okay. It's unlikely either of us will change – we might even disagree on where we disagree. But if I approach this as the student (aiming to learn) rather than the teacher (aiming to instruct), we can both embrace some uncertainty.
The goal is not to shift their thinking but simply to learn more.
Learning is a very accessible goal. And this approach is slowly helping me reprogram my understanding of a successful argument. At least initially, it doesn't feel as rewarding as the arguments where I felt like I "won." But I'm learning how to listen. I'm also having to apologize less and creating better rapport with friends with whom I disagree.
And this is the long-term win.
1) Don't engage someone who brings only darts to an argument.
If someone is never going to ask me an honest question or admit to any uncertainty, engaging this specific person will almost certainly result in a pointless argument. As much as possible, I should avoid them. I truly believe there are more reasonable people out there whom I can engage!
2) Don't be a person who brings only darts to an argument.
If I never ask the hard questions or admit to any uncertainty, this will make smart people less interested in talking to me. And that is a huge loss.
3) Don't disengage.
I do have strongly held convictions, and it would be easy to surround myself with like-minded people until November. But I don't think I'll have as much impact this way.
If my goal is to eventually influence other humans, I think this will happen slowly, in real life conversations, and I must learn to maintain composure, as hard as that is these days.