3 Things That Make Political Discussions Nearly Impossible

"This isn't the time to talk about politics!" If you're like me, you may have heard these words while watching Minions in a theater or while making small talk with the grunting person in the next restroom stall. If you're a normal person, you may have heard these words after trying to advocate a solution to prevent more occurrences of whatever horrible event was recently in the news.

And if "politics" to you means "societal issues with life-and-death real-world consequences which the government can affect," then this seems utterly bizarre. Why would you not talk about one of those issues after one of those very bad consequences? Why would you not discuss someone's drinking problem after you found them passed out in the neighbor's birdbath? Why would you not revisit the alleged infallibility of watertight compartments after an "unsinkable" luxury liner bumps into an iceberg and sinks?

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But when someone says this isn't the time for politics, they don't mean "politics" as in "important real-world issues." They mean "frivolous petty shit that only a ghoul would bring up now." The discussion becomes nearly impossible, because ...

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3
They Think Some Political Discussions Are Meaningless

A lot of people use "politics" to mean "stuff that doesn't affect real life." They think of it as nothing but abstract shit, like economics and laws about lawyers and declaring National Low-Flow Toilet Day and not discriminating against some group you don't know any people from. I mean, most of those actually do affect real life (especially toilet holidays), but depending on who you are, there's a large swath of political issues that feel really non-urgent, if not completely unnecessary.

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Everyone has different ideas of which issues fall into what bucket. Some white business owner who's never met any black people might think racism is mostly about mean words celebrities say sometimes, and that therefore addressing racism is not super important to anyone's lives, black or white. On the flip side, raising taxes on small businesses is "real-life important" because it affects whether he can afford to keep Martha and Kevin on or has to fire them. It affects real, hard-working people's livelihoods! People with names! Meanwhile, a Sikh guy who got pulled out of his car and beaten up for being a "Muslim terrorist" might think racism is a very urgent problem, while small business taxes are something you discuss academically in a living room conversation over pumpkin spice lattes.

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I'm not here to rank which issues are actually the most important and affect the most lives (although I absolutely have opinions on this). The point is that when someone shames you for bringing up "politics," they are saying your issue is not high on their list. It is a coffee table discussion. An intellectual exercise. A debate club topic. Internet argument material. Something to discuss with your co-workers if they don't watch Game Of Thrones.

2
For Many People, Politics Isn't "Real Stuff"

It's not even a spectrum; it's two totally separate buckets in people's minds. There's real stuff, which seriously impacts real people, and there's theoretical ideas for playing arguing games. And it's really hard to imagine that something in your "fun game" bucket is something someone else has put in their "real stuff" bucket. And when you bring that thing up, you sound ghastly, like a dog bringing a ball to its owner to play catch while the owner is desperately performing CPR on their unconscious spouse. "Please! You know I love playing games with you by debating imaginary problems like racism or gun deaths, but good God, not now! Real people have been hurt!"

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The horrifying thing here is that for probably most people, the majority of "politics" goes in that "fun game" bucket, which they actually label "politics." The "real stuff" bucket gets another label. Maybe "common sense" or "life issues" or "saving lives" or "helping actual people." People give it all kinds of names to avoid calling it "politics," even if it's literally something you change through voting and activism and passing laws. That dodgily named bucket is populated with a person's most treasured issues, and anything else you can vote on goes in the "politics" bucket.

When people say "Politics shouldn't get in the way of friendship," they mean "The stuff in my politics bucket, which contains fun argument material that doesn't affect real life, shouldn't get in the way of friendship." It's on par with what ice cream flavor is best, or which sports team you root for, or whether a hot dog is a sandwich. If you fight with a friend over those things, then obviously your priorities are out of whack. (Side note: A hot dog is obviously a type of pizza.)

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In this way, even stuff that affects whether large groups of people live or die gets put in that bucket, as long as the people who are going to live or die are far enough from you (geographically or culturally) that they seem like characters in a hypothetical scenario. A thousand people in another state who might die are a "political question," while two people close to you who might get fired are "an issue that affects real people." It's good to care about the real people, you know! It's bad to write off thousands of others as trolley problem characters.

1
The People You Argue With Probably Don't Care As Much As You Do

What's really crazy is that everyone chooses to put different things in each bucket, and almost everyone also assumes that other people know and agree with them about what belongs in each one. When someone tries to bring up legislation or policy during a crisis and are yelled at to stop "politicizing" the issue, what the critics mean is "How dare you take something out of what we all know is the 'politics' bucket and try to slip it into the 'real stuff' bucket!" They do this never once imagining that this issue has been in that person's "real stuff" bucket all along. (Dun dun dun!)

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And you realize what that means? That before this whole situation, when these people were arguing about this issue on the internet, one person thought it was a fun theoretical debate in which the only thing at stake was prestige points, while the other thought they were talking about a heart-wrenching issue with lives at stake. One was trying to find a way to give a future to kids who slip through society's cracks, and the other was like, "Good game! You were a worthy opponent!"

And something terrible happens, and your sportsmanlike opponents say: "We can go back to having fun later, but THIS isn't the time for politicizing!" And only then do you realize it's been a game to them the whole time.

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There are three things to take away here:

1. We put too few things into the "real stuff" bucket and too many things into the "politics" bucket. Some stuff that seems minor and non-urgent to us probably has a real and serious effect on people we don't know a lot about. Maybe we're treating too many things as game topics.

2. Other people don't have the same buckets. We need to stop always assuming people are manufacturing issues or "playing politics" just because they're focusing on an issue we think (or know!) is dumb. Even if they're clearly wrong, they're not necessarily doing this on purpose or cleverly trying to "distract from the real issues."

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3. Sometimes "politics" should come before friendship. I want to be really careful with this. I don't mean "frivolous issues from our politics bucket" and I don't mean "party loyalty." I mean human-affecting stuff we put in our "real life" bucket which many people mistakenly classify as "fun game politics." I don't necessarily mean breaking up, but I don't think something that important to you should be papered over to keep things smooth and avoid fights. I don't think you should have to laugh along when a friend attacks something near and dear to your heart, or to be made to feel guilty if you stoneface their joke and cause tension. I think you should tell them they're more important than politics to you, but that the thing they just said ... ain't in your politics bucket.

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