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 ...
Of course, there are times when you've done the research, you've had the tough conversations, and you feel confident in your opinion. You're going to encounter many, many people who hold an opposing viewpoint for reasons that reach own-tongue-swallowing levels of stupidity. For example, I have a friend who truly, deeply believes that Die Hard 4 was a better movie than Die Hard 3. I couldn't tell you his reasons why, because as soon as I established that he wasn't kidding, I started hearing loud John Philip Sousa marches in my head. I can recognize a lost cause when I see one, so rather than try to change his mind, I just left the room and then quietly informed the police that a future serial killer was on the loose.
He's now locked away with people who prefer Jedi to Empire and Rocky V apologists.
Let's take a less extreme example: Say you believe that sex education should be taught in schools, and it comes up in conversation that one of your friends believes abstinence-only is the way to go. This is an issue you feel strongly about, one you've researched thoroughly, and you believe you've come to the only logical conclusion, so your immediate reaction is to speculate loudly about your friend's mother's loose morals and maybe throw in a backhand or two for good measure. Satisfying as that may be, your friend walks away less likely to engage in debate about this particular topic in the future, given that he couldn't even broach the subject without getting yelled at, and his mother is actually a very nice lady who's just trying to do the best she can.
"You have no idea how hard it is raising a child with terminal wrongness."
If, instead, you say, "That's an interesting position. Why do you feel that way?" and give legitimate consideration and attention to his answer, and then follow up with statistics about teen pregnancy and STIs in school districts that teach sex ed versus those that teach abstinence, you will ... still not change anyone's mind, in all likelihood. Humans don't like changing their minds, because our brains light up in pleasing ways when we confirm something we already believe in. In a University of Georgia study on teaching advanced science concepts to non-science majors, "Students ignored correct textual information when it conflicted with their previously held concepts. On measures of free recall and recognition, the students consistently let their incorrect prior knowledge override incoming correct information." And that's about fucking science, where there are actually right and wrong opinions. BUT, at least you'll have a civil conversation with your friend. Speak about your own experience and why you believe in your position, rather than tearing his opinion to shreds.
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"Well, when you define 'ethnic cleansing' that way, it makes so much more sense."
Maybe your argument will be so groundbreaking and convincing that he'll convert on the spot; probably not. No matter what, the most important thing to remember is that ...
So you've followed this guide word for word. You've sought out and absorbed every side of an issue, you've formed an opinion only when you felt confident you could back it up, and you've engaged in open, honest discussion with someone who disagrees with you -- and she still thinks you're wrong. That's cool; turns out you just disagree about this one thing. Try talking about your plans for the weekend instead.
The way we talk about politics, especially with people who belong to the opposite political party from us, makes it seem like anyone who believes in single-payer health care or looser gun control is a literal monster, gleefully watching the world fall apart while stroking a Persian cat and using an orphan as a footstool. Nobody is doing that. We are not defined by our political parties. We are all complex, multi-faceted human beings with first loves and insecurities and at least one embarrassing pants-pooping story.
"-- and then the Dalai Lama looks at me and says, "I guess your colon just achieved 'enlightenment'."
We tend to put so much weight on political affiliations, but really, we disagree with the people around us all the time, about everything. Why are we able to move on when a friend thinks our football team shouldn't have drafted our top pick, or when someone would rather watch The Big Bang Theory than Game of Thrones, but when we find out who that friend voted for in the last election, it can feel like the whole friendship was a lie?
I have an answer to that question: It's because we're all being jerks to each other, and it's time to cut it out. We only get this one short life together. Now let's all go watch Die Hard 3 again.
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But seriously, if you think Part 4 is better, please seek professional help.