Political discourse in America has reached levels of douchebaggery previously only theorized about but never observed, like conversational dark matter. We're in a whole new world of hating people based solely on their opinions on a few key issues, and since this is unexplored territory, our conversations about politics are usually only a couple notches beyond the "hold your breath until the other person agrees with you and/or you die" technique.
But it's the 21st century. We have access to the entirety of collective human knowledge in our back pockets at all times. We have taken pictures of the deepest corners of space. We have three different goddamn TV shows about bidding on abandoned storage units. We as a society should have moved beyond figuratively (and literally, probably, knowing you assholes) shitting in our hands and throwing it at each other whenever someone brings up the deficit.
Although I'll admit that actual shit flinging would make C-SPAN infinitely more watchable.
So, let's lay down some ground rules for this new interpersonal landscape. Keep these four things in mind and elevate your level of discourse, educate yourself and the people around you, and find simple harmony through honest, open conversation. Or, you know, keep calling each other Dildo Hitlers. It's up to you.
This is both the most obvious and the most easily overlooked point on this list. When we have a strong opinion on an issue and have researched and validated that opinion, it can be exceptionally difficult to see why anyone would have the opposite viewpoint. Here's the thing: The person who holds the opposite viewpoint is thinking the exact same thing.
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"But that would mean I might be the one acting irrationally, and that can't possibly be right."
To demonstrate this point, I'll take the least consequential issue I can think of: the recent NYC soda ban, in which mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to ban the sale of soda over 16 ounces in restaurants, food carts, and movie theaters. I imagined trying to explain the sheer passion behind this issue to an alien just encountering human civilization for the first time, and here's how the conversation went:
Alien: "Tell me of the troubles that plague your people."
Me: "One of our major cities is trying to ban sodas larger than a certain size."
Alien: "What is soda? A crucial nutrient? A form of currency?"
Me: "No, it's flavored sugar water."
Alien: "I see."
Me: "With bubbles, though!"
Alien: "Why did your people ban it? Was it inspiring people to do violence? Does it alter the way humans interact with each other?"
Me: "They actually didn't ban it, they're just trying to ban selling large containers of it because it's bad for you. Not, like, that bad, but it can make you fat if you drink too much of it. You can still get small- and medium-size containers of it."
Alien: "So now you must buy your sugared beverage in smaller quantities."
Me: "Well, no, there's been such a strong public outcry against it that it was struck down less than a day after it went into effect, and it might cost the mayor who proposed it his political career."
Alien: "So I gather you've solved hunger, and poverty, and senseless violence, if this is a major concern to your society."
Me: "No, we just ... really love our flavored sugar water."
Alien: "With bubbles."
Me: "See? You get it."
I'm trying to establish two things with this fictional exchange:
1. Compared to most political discussions you'll have, the soda ban is an awfully low-stakes one.
2. I can't even have a successful conversation in my own imagination.
To someone who knows nothing about the issue, it can seem extremely straightforward. Do you like soda cups so big that drinking out of them requires lifeguard supervision at all times? Opposed to the ban. Do you think Americans are basically sweaty, waddling butter vessels who deserve to have their corn syrup taken away? In favor of the ban. I'm guessing that some of you formed an opinion on this issue (and on other, more important issues) based on your gut response to the briefest of summaries published on a website whose writers are contractually obligated to make a poop joke at least once every 1,000 words.
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"I'm sick of you all being turds in my Hawaiian Punch bowl."
Fortunately, there are intelligent, thoughtful, diligent people out there who have researched the issue thoroughly and have come down both against the soda ban (it won't work, it infringes on our civil liberties) and in favor of it (visual cues regarding portion size have a huge influence on our behavior, and the threat of obesity is serious enough that we ought to be coaxed into better consumption habits).
What appeared at first glance to be a simple, cut-and-dried issue turns out to be complicated and multi-sided and holy shit just shut up about the soda already. How are you supposed to wade through all this information to come up with a valid opinion? And how can you be expected to fully research every issue affecting the world? For every article written by a bright guy with a fancy degree that says "Voting a Democrat into the White House will destroy the nation," there's another one written by an equally bright guy with an equally fancy degree that says the same about Republicans. Everyone thinks they're right, and they've all published papers; how are you supposed to figure out how you feel about a thing? Well, lucky for you ...
Let me paint you a word-picture. You're out to dinner with some friends who are deep in a discussion on the Israel/Palestine issue. Maybe some of them are actually Israeli or Palestinian and have opinions based on first-hand experience; maybe some of them have spent years researching the issue and talking to people affected by it; maybe some of them just like the sound of their own voices. You, on the other hand, don't know much about it. You're the guy saying "Yeah, Israel. Palestine. I've heard both of those words." But you're in a social situation, and you feel like you ought to contribute something, so you pick a side and run with it. Maybe your opinion is based on something you were sort of listening to on the radio one morning, or maybe it's based on a half-remembered episode of The West Wing, or a particularly compelling tweet you read once. It doesn't matter. What's important is that you have an opinion.
"The lizard people ... the world must know."
Congratulations! You're an asshole.
Here's one of the worst things that's ever happened to humanity:
The Facebook status bar has given everyone with an Internet connection the false impression that a) they should have something to say and b) what they have to say is important. "Facebook wants to know what's on my mind, so I guess whatever's on my mind is worth sharing. The people want to know how I feel about ... the thing ... About issues, and so on. The election, probably. Is there an election? If there is, I bet people want to know how I feel about it."
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"Can't we all just get back to posting corgi GIFs?"
There is absolutely nothing wrong with not having an opinion. Spend your time at that dinner party listening to what the people around you are saying and deciding which arguments ring true for you. Ask questions. Expand your mind. Do your Christopher Walken impression if things get really tense. But for Christ's sake, don't just pick an opinion because you feel you're entitled or obligated to have one. You aren't. Notice that, when I tell you this, I'm using this calm and reassuring font instead of, say, gigantic capital letters. I'm doing that because ...