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How to Take the Venom Out of Political Debates

Ask questions, find common ground to restore civility

Jan. 19, 2011
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Have our discussions about politics become too venomous?

Has our society become too full of conflict?

While it may be difficult to measure, James Dimitri Topitzes, an assistant professor at UW-Milwaukee’s Helen Bader School of Social Welfare, says that our current political discourse is perceived to be too contentious. That includes the debate at the highest levels of our government as well as talk around the dinner table about the issues of the day.

Why is this happening? And how can we tone down the rhetoric and resist the impulse to lash out when we’re feeling baited into a hostile debate?

Topitzes has a few suggestions in this Shepherd Q&A:

Shepherd: Is it true that our society has become more acrimonious than it has in the past?

Well, the perception is true. Anecdotally it seems true to me, especially around policy and politics.

Why is that the case?

It’s interesting that hot-button issues are no longer just social issues. It’s not just that gay marriage or abortion seems to create pretty intense debate and conflict. Now, health care, job creation—those kinds of issues—also seem to be inciting a lot of contention, a lot of discord. So why is that true? I think we can speculate. In times of economic crisis we may turn up the heat a little bit. There’s a little bit more anxiety and agitation. I’m not a historian or political scientist, but it seems to me that the tone or tenor of discourse among our policy-makers has become more and more dichotomous. There’s one right camp and one wrong camp.

But not only are we disagreeing about matters of opinion, which is fine, but we’re disagreeing about the facts. There seems to be two sets of facts.

There is a disagreement about the facts, but it’s almost as if each side would say, “I’m focusing on the facts. This is factual.” And to some degree it’s partially true. But the problem is that there’s the amplification of what we want to be true at the expense of what is also true. We start to narrow our view and focus on this one aspect of reality that our particular camp is highlighting as true at the expense of these other nuances and truisms. That can create this perception from both camps that, “We have a purchase on reality. We have the purchase on reality.”

So how can we deal with others who are engaging in uncivil debate?

There’s a good deal of research on adult development. Adult development includes an ability to take someone else’s perspective, to put the perspective that I hold to the side for a moment so that I can understand this other person’s way of thinking. It includes being able to hold a number of perspectives within my thought processes at the same time. It includes an understanding that the answers are usually provisional. There’s not just one right answer. Sometimes many different approaches or answers can be valid for any one particular issue. It also incorporates this idea that answers can change over time, that what might be right today might not be perfectly appropriate tomorrow. It’s not an absolute way of thinking.

Recently, a friend was at a dinner party and the host said something really offensive and hurtful to her about her political views. How could she handle that sort of situation?

When I’m in an environment where there are what I think are offensive statements, I think to myself, “Why don’t I start a dialogue? Why don’t I ask some questions so I can better understand their position?”

I engage with a family member who has a very different perspective on the policies of the day. And, partly because he’s willing and I’m willing, we engage in relatively civil dialogue, trying to understand the other person’s position, and I’ve learned a great deal during my interactions with him.

I’m not saying everyone’s going to be amenable to that. I also have relatives who advance what I consider to be a very different perspective on issues than my own and I might try to ask questions and understand their positions more deeply, but they resist. They sometimes try to support their position with erroneous or fallacious sorts of references—facts that aren’t facts. I might try to counter it, but it doesn’t seem to go very far.

Not everyone is going to be interested in dialoging, but it seems to be worth the effort these days because it seems like we’re in such a contentious time. Trying to realize this ideal of more complex thinking, more integrative and, frankly, more compassionate thinking and engagement with our fellow citizens might be worth the effort.

Sometimes it seems that folks are baiting others, just trying to start a fight.

It’s true. Our political perspectives have become so personally charged. But I think this kind of inquisitive approach can help even with people who are steeling for a fight. It could be disarming. “Help me understand why you hold that position. What are the facts that are undergirding your assertions? What are your experiences that are telling you this?”

When I engage one of my relatives in this way, his responses are so illuminating to me. He really lets me know why he has arrived at this conclusion, what his experiences are. I find that really helpful to understand. It doesn’t necessarily mean that, ultimately, my perspective changes, but it does broaden my understanding of the issue and there are times when we can find common ground. I find that kind of liberating, actually.


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