Well That Escalated Quickly
Shabbos lunch. A few families are eating together and everyone is making pleasant headway through the food and discussions. Conversations transition between a single group exchange and several different temporary clusters schmoozing about this and that. As one conversation leads easily to another there is a pleasant hum of relaxed chatter. There’s a general comfortable feeling.
At some point Mexican immigrants are mentioned, and the air suddenly grows heavy. Stomach muscles tighten. I suspect you too tensed a bit as you just now read the words “Mexican immigrants.” The innocent little phrase just as well could have been about taxes, gun control, Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, or global warming. Just a small hint of politics. No one is arguing yet, but it is inevitable. Everyone at the table knows how these conversations go, and of course today is no different. Soon enough the motions of political arguing commence. The talking points will proceed predictably, almost verbatim the same squabble as from a previous meal. After a few minutes the ping-pong exchange will die off, and all will be quiet for just a moment. All exhale with relief at having made it through the topic of politics.
I used to assume that this phenomenon was unique to my circles. Then, a few years ago, I was browsing a certain news website and found on the front page an interesting advice article. It was about how to deal with family arguments during holiday-season meals. The author described the familiar scenario of relatives and friends arguing about politics, and I was amazed at how closely this description resembled what I’ve unfortunately experienced a few times for myself. The more I opened my eyes, the more portrayals I found of eerily similar situations, whether in TV shows, movies, or various online forums.
I was reminded of this phenomenon’s ubiquity more recently while watching Saturday Night Live this past November. In one sketch, a family of six is sitting around a Thanksgiving feast. There is an older couple who are the parents of a middle-aged woman who has brought her husband along. There’s also an aunt, as well as a girl who is seven or eight years old. Only a few seconds after the father-figure announces that he is thankful to have his family around, the aunt mentions the Syrian refugees. The younger woman becomes tense, and the screen flashes with the words, “Thanksgiving with family can be hard.” A few more seconds and all of the adults are yelling cacophonously, and the screen flashes, “Everyone has different opinions and beliefs.” Then, the little girl walks aside to a speaker device to play Adele’s “Hello” for her family to hear, and they all begin singing and acting along together. Grandparents then walk in and, interrupting the music, briefly reignite the quarrelling. Luckily, though, the little girl blasts the song one more time to save the day. By the end of the absurd rendition all conflict is apparently resolved.
While most of us probably can’t orchestrate elaborate Adele parodies to restore mealtime harmony, I believe there is what to learn from SNL’s parable. For various reasons, people often have remarkably strong feelings about their political opinions. Rather than looking to learn from each other, these discussions often become disputations where each participant’s goal is to gain the moral high ground by outperforming the other’s sharpness and wit. Less important than making a convincing case is catching one’s opponent off-guard so that he or she has no quick response. Thus, the battle is won.
That this state of affairs is even recognizable is unfortunate. Thankfully, it seems to me that most of these feuds happen between two or three people at a table, as the others more or less step back and wait for the conversation to move on. This happened to me a few weeks ago when I accidentally led a Shabbos meal conversation to the topic of whether or not American Jews should view Israel policy as the most important factor when considering a political candidate. A friend sitting next to me whispered sarcastically, “Great, you just brought up politics.” And indeed, the next five minutes were wholly predictable, with the same old points and typical tenseness.
I’m not claiming that everyone’s ideal should be to find most political discussions boring (though plenty I personally do). Nor am I suggesting to divert every political conversation to a lighter topic (though a few Mondays ago I diverted three different discussions from the topic of the Iowa Caucus to Punxsutawney Phil). Only the most insular and narrow-minded among us would deny that there is any value in being an informed citizen with political awareness. The issue is not the existence of political debates, but the manner in which they are conducted.
It should be obvious that shouting matches are undesirable. But even when there is no yelling – and I like to think that there usually isn’t – the problem is that a constructive purpose is lacking. Going through the motions of an argument that everyone has heard many times is pointless. And when it creates even some level of hard feelings, it is detrimental. The solution isn’t to pretend that there is some sweet middle-of-the-road solution to every argument. This just isn’t true. Most of the time neither side of a political discussion is a fascist or an anarchist, nor a religious fundamentalist or a theophobe. There is usually validity to both sides of issues that are being maintained, and these issues are complex. There is not an obvious answer to every problem.
So why are we too often unwilling to even hear the other side of political issues?
One reason seems to be the polarized nature of politics. You’re either a Republican or a Democrat. You’re either for legalization or against. You either want Obamacare repealed or you think it’s great. And so on. Of course there is gray area, but the image of two sides to every issue is pervasive. When the political system creates an apparent divide between black and white, it is easy to become obstinate about ever changing one’s views. The other camp is seen as the Dark Side, seeking to destroy the Galactic Republic and all that is good.
Another apparent cause of this problem is that people argue prematurely, without being informed about what they are championing. Admitting that one is unsure how to respond is obviously a non-option, as is changing one’s opinion, so the only alternative once one has started is to continue arguing (poorly). When multiple people are insufficiently informed they will likely switch sides at some point within the conversation, hopefully without being called out on such. In situations like these it is easy to become unnecessarily defensive and antagonistic, leading to overall unpleasant feelings for all.
A good place to start the healing is to become more informed about political topics. But this isn’t enough. There also has to be a group effort to keep the environment relaxed and respectful when discussing political issues. Both sides should speak confidently; yet, at the same time, do so calmly, thoughtfully, and with mutual deference. We’ve all watched debaters of this kind, and they are undoubtedly more convincing and believable than the alternative. And perhaps more importantly, these types of rhetoricians usually don’t leave anyone – on their side or against – with feelings of tension or awkwardness. People seem more intelligent when they refrain from getting angry or stressed, and sometimes even actually lead to others learning something new.
I welcome discussion about other solutions to the predicament of our political discourse that I have described. I’m sure that there are other resolutions out there. Just remember that arguments are okay. There’s what to gain from good, constructive discussions with mutual respect all around. This election season, let’s listen to and learn from the other side. At least try.