Political Debates Are Frustrating, Polarizing—And Good for You

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There’s an old joke that goes: “Debating politics on the Internet is like playing chess with a pigeon. No matter how skilled you are at the game, the pigeon is going to knock over the pieces, crap on the board, and then strut around like he’s won.” As with many jokes, this one contains a certain element of truth. Exchanging political views over social media can be a rough-and-tumble affair, rife with SCREAMING CAPS and exclamation points, with truisms disguised as truths and with biases disguised as definitions, held together by the kind of cobweb of logical fallacies that would send Aristotle spinning in his sarcophagus.

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Nevertheless, it’s worth doing.

Before going into why, however, let’s bow to reality. As much as we like to think of our politics as a cluster of interrelated intellectual propositions, they hardly ever are. They run much deeper and transcend the nuances of a particular issue or the outcome of a given election. Our politics penetrate to the core of who we are and how we perceive ourselves: how we gauge the trajectory of our lives, how we recall our parents and our upbringing, how well our paycheck seems to reflect the value of our work, how smart we consider our friends and family. These are the intimate, impassioned judgments around which our politics coalesce.

Suppose, for example, you think that the rich aren’t paying their fair share. That’s not the kind of thing you merely think. Chances are, you feel it; you feel it in your gut. What’s the likelihood of your being convinced otherwise by the detail that, in 2014, the top 1% of earners paid 45.7% of all federal income taxes while taking home only 17% of total income? From a strictly rational standpoint, that fact should be a conversation stopper. Checkmate. But it never is.

Why not?

Because people who think that the rich aren’t paying their “fair share” aren’t really hanging their opinion on a specific data point. They’re thinking about the human condition, a condition in which—at least in their minds—the rich aren’t paying enough. But saying that the rich aren’t paying “enough” gives away the game if you’re debating the issue. You want the rich to pay more, period. You’re not talking about mathematical fairness—a percentage that can be clearly defined; you’re talking about a broad economic philosophy of redistributing finite resources from the haves to the have-nots. It’s a fine philosophy, but it requires the acceptance of a set of non-negotiable, quasi-religious premises about individual versus collective rights, about the role of government, and about the social contract, that don’t lend themselves to logical argument.

So if you’re unlikely to change the other guy’s mind, what’s the point of engaging him? Or, to return to the pigeon-chess metaphor, why play if you can’t win? The answer is that even without winning, per se, you can still come out ahead in three distinct ways:

1. You can learn stuff. Even the cleverest among us are susceptible to confirmation bias. We’ll Google our fingers to the bone tracking down evidence supporting what we already believe while diligently ignoring evidence to the contrary. Debating politics is a useful tonic because the other guy will bring his own confirmation biases. He’ll direct you to his favored sources, where you’ll run into arguments you’d otherwise have never encountered. Even if some are transparently wrong, others will be cogent and not easily dismissible; these must be addressed if you’re ever going to defend your position effectively. They’re valuable in organizing your thoughts.

2. You can exemplify reasonableness. Many pajama pundits simply cannot conceive of their political opponents as intelligent, well-intentioned people. This is understandable since demonizing is much easier than reasoning. Back in the 1990s, the author Mike Godwin hypothesized that the longer any online debate continues, the more likely it becomes that one participant will compare another to a Nazi—what’s now known as Godwin’s Law. But name-calling and caricaturing becomes harder when your opponent won’t return fire, when the invective flows only in one direction. Others in the discussion thread, including your opponent’s natural allies, will notice. Nothing is more rattling to political certainty than the recognition that your side is populated by the bigger jerks.

3. You can enact an important ritual of citizenship. Yes, there’s often anger in political debate. Yes, there’s often ignorance and bad logic. But politics is who we are, our commonality. You might roll your eyes at a Rush Limbaugh or an Al Sharpton—it’s difficult to imagine anyone who’d listen contentedly to both—but whichever way your eyes roll, you should want both of their voices in the mix. The back and forth between conservatives and liberals—between those who defend the tradition and those who push for change—is the republic. It’s the res publica, the public thing that defines us collectively.

So go ahead and stare down that pigeon. You may not be able to take his king. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sit across the virtual table, study the board and play your pieces.

Goldblatt is chairperson of the Educational Skills Department at Fashion Institute of Technology. His most recent novel is Finding The Worm (Random House). Follow him on Twitter @MarkGoldblatt or Facebook.

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