Here’s a question that seems particularly relevant as we head into holiday season 2016: In the wake of such a vituperative election, how do you possibly discuss politics with loved ones you might disagree with on just about everything, without wanting to kill each other?
I’ll be the first to admit there’s no easy answer. I recently wrote a whole piece on why progressives should work harder to express their values to folks in rural areas, without ever addressing the question of how to do that. Many of us are just giving up. In lots of families with political divides, politics might come up less and less. It’s too easy to get into a bitter fight, one that imperils loving relationships.
Central to my argument in that earlier piece, though, is the idea that progressive values are worth standing up for — and that requires some degree of proselytizing to those who aren’t yet believers. Doing so is going to require conversation, though don’t worry. The holidays are here, and everything is better with a little pie and being face to face, instead of online.
So here are five tips for having those conversations. Let me preface this by saying that these are all strategies that have worked for me — they either were ways people convinced me of progressive values when I was closer to the religious conservative end of the political spectrum, or they’re ways I’ve found of keeping these conversations productive but undramatic with friends and family back home.
Maybe they won’t work for you. That’s okay. They’re just a starting point; you’ll have a better idea of how to talk with your own friends and family than I will. Consider these general guidelines to get started, and take or leave them as you will — and if you’re a conservative (who does or doesn’t support Trump), all of these tips are general enough to work in either direction.
1) Tell a story. Don’t offer an argument.
Earlier this year, when talking with me about how Star Trek: The Next Generation helped him rethink many of the positions he held on various issues, author Reza Aslan told me he thinks storytelling is the strongest method we have for convincing other people of what we think is right. He said:
I never get tired of reminding people that data does not change minds. You can be given poll after poll after poll, survey after survey after survey, challenging your view on something, and it doesn't matter. What changes your mind is relationships and storytelling. They work on a completely different part of you. They're dealing with your emotions, rather than your reason.
There’s a reason most religions are founded atop storytelling: It’s a great way to talk about what we do and don’t value. Telling a story and building relationships mean, necessarily, engaging with the human side of an issue. It’s a good way to remove some of the stress of talking about politics, too. Issues become more real when there are human faces attached to them.
When I was a religious conservative, a big part of my belief system was centered on abortion. Since I’m adopted — and could, I thought, have been aborted — it was a big hurdle for me to get over, even as my values were more progressive than my peers on issues like LGBTQ rights and the environment.
But what changed my mind was talking with friends who had made the choice to end pregnancies, for a variety of reasons. It was about being convinced not by an argument, but by people I knew and loved and cared about.
Obviously, you won’t be able to put a human face on every single issue, but when you’re talking about an idea as big as “I fear Donald Trump will be a bad president,” then you should be able to find somewhere to start.
Tell the story of a friend or family member whose life will be affected by a Trump presidency. Start there, and stay there as long as possible.
2) Keep things sincere, as much as possible
You’ll know the person you’re talking to better than I will. With someone you know really well, shared jokes or humor can be a great way to break the ice and keep tension from spilling over.
But it’s way too easy for sarcasm, say, to be misinterpreted and come off as condescending. I spent a lot of time in college — when I was going through my political evolution — feeling like my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) was making fun of me when she mocked political positions I held deeply, even if she had no idea of what she was doing.
It’s way, way too easy for us to come to think of our political positions as extensions of ourselves. That’s probably not healthy in the long run, but it’s something to keep in mind as an issue that has to be worked around. The way I’ve found to be most effective is sincerity. Say the things you mean, with as much compassion as you can muster. Clear the air before injecting more smoke into it.
3) Really listen to what’s going on — not what you assume is going on
A mentor of mine always said that when you’re getting notes on a piece you’ve written, it’s important to take a moment to figure out not how to deal with the note, but what’s motivating it.
Sometimes a note can seem overwhelming, until you realize that what it’s talking about is easily fixed earlier in the piece, when, say, clarification of a point will clear everything up more easily. What’s important is to work through your own reactions to the note — be they psychological or emotional — so you can better figure out what’s driving that point.
Something similar is important when talking to people with whom you disagree on an issue. Because all of us live in geographical and social media bubbles, it’s really easy to draw conclusions about what we think of people who live in different bubbles, and those conclusions can be inaccurate.
To return to my own thoughts around abortion, it took having friends who were willing to acknowledge my own ties to the issue, who could talk to me about how it was okay to feel how I felt, but who also weren’t willing to budge on their own position on abortion because of something that might have happened to me in the past (but didn’t).
This is painstaking, sometimes enervating work. These issues are already heated in our national discourse, and it’s easy to jump to, “That’s a horrible thing to say!” because, hey, sometimes people say horrible things. But trying to find the emotions and thought processes lying underneath those horrible things is almost always the strongest way to find common ground and build from there.
4) Try not to use online shorthand (like “privilege”) for broad, systemic problems. Talk about the problems themselves instead.
Of late, I’ve found that the concept of, say, privilege sets off alarm bells in my conservative friends. It’s not that they don’t get the concept — they can accept that, say, life in the United States is easier for a generic straight white male than for a generic anybody else. It’s that it can be tough to leap from “I agree this is true in general” to “I agree this is true for me.”
Online progressive discourse is soaked in academic language, and I think that’s cool and even useful when most everybody knows what those terms mean. But that academic language hasn’t made the leap offline in a way that allows for easy discussion in real, physical spaces.
“Racist” means very different things to people who think the word describes systemic oppression in the US and those who think the word describes a specific kind of person, one who openly expresses prejudice and bias against those of other races.
Think of the idea that white people can’t experience racism. It’s true if you think about how American society is systemically biased in favor of white people in general. It’s less true if you think simply about prejudice, because anybody can be prejudiced against anybody for a wide variety of reasons. And nearly everybody has experienced some form of prejudice directed against them — and has pain connected to that. Invalidating that pain is a good way to create a rift.
Thus, it’s important for everybody to be speaking the same language. And sometimes that means not taking the linguistic shortcuts progressives use for discussion online. That doesn’t mean abandoning social justice issues, but it does mean, sometimes, backing up and using techniques from steps one through three to talk about why those issues are important.
5) Be sure you’re in the right mental place to talk about this stuff
Don’t neglect the fact that these topics are tough. They can cause strain on relationships, and strain on your mental well-being.
If you’re at Thanksgiving dinner and you’re not ready to talk about any of this because you’re still too emotionally raw, that’s totally fine. If you’re in a place where you’ll erupt in anger, that could poison relationships going forward. And if you’re in a place where you’ll fall into depression, that’s a problem too.
All of us will hopefully have more time to talk about this stuff with those we love. If you believe in progressive values, it’s important to have those talks — but it’s also important to make sure you’re taking care of yourself so you can keep going.
The important thing is to reach out to your friends and family who feel differently from you and remind yourself that you’re all human beings. If that means, at this moment in time, letting a few snide quips about Obamacare or climate change slide, because you’re just not ready to talk about it, let that happen.
None of this is easy, and it’s all built atop relationships. Remember, always, that you’re one half of that relationship too, and compensate accordingly.