Divided Country, Divided Family

By Levin Schüren

“Divi­sion” by Nick Youngson

Let’s just stop for a minute and reflect on a polit­i­cal, philo­soph­i­cal, or moral issue you’re wrong about. It ain’t that easy, right? But why not? The chance that you’re right on every top­ic you think and argue about is basi­cal­ly zero. Of course, if you knew you were wrong about some­thing you wouldn’t hold that belief or even preach it. When­ev­er some­body utters an opin­ion we don’t agree with, our minds go: How dare you believe that? Of course, you can shield your­self from such thoughts by avoid­ing opin­ions that dif­fer from yours. How­ev­er, that’s a bad idea. It’s impor­tant to talk to peo­ple, so let me give you some prac­ti­cal advice on how to do it. Espe­cial­ly since the hol­i­days are upon us, you’ll like­ly meet fam­i­ly mem­bers you haven’t seen in a while. So here comes an instruc­tion man­u­al on how to deal with that crazy aunt of yours who wor­ships con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries.  

There’s so much to argue about these days. Any­thing from food not made of meat to vac­cine man­dates or tacky Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions have the poten­tial of ruin­ing a per­fect­ly fine Christ­mas or New Year’s din­ner. We all know what it’s like when dis­cus­sions go wrong. So what’s there to do? Not have the dis­cus­sions? At times that might be your best option, but a bad one for democ­ra­cy since it depends on open and hon­est dis­course. 

I had the plea­sure of fre­quent­ly argu­ing with my room­mates dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. Online class­es mixed with every student’s nat­ur­al dri­ve for pro­cras­ti­na­tion had man­aged to turn a com­ment like “I’m going to get some cof­fee and then keep work­ing on my stuff” into a heat­ed, two-hour debate on the nature of moral­i­ty. Even though I learned a lot from these dis­cus­sions, they some­times felt unpro­duc­tive. 

“He who knows only his own side knows lit­tle,” wrote John Stu­art Mill in 1859. 150 years lat­er, the psy­chol­o­gist Phil Tet­lock set up an exper­i­ment to prove Mill’s point. Tet­lock gave his sub­jects a polit­i­cal top­ic to research and dis­cov­ered that peo­ple stud­ied much more eager­ly when they were told that they had to present the top­ic to a group who is well informed, inter­est­ed in the top­ic, and of an unknown polit­i­cal back­ground. 

Usu­al­ly, our friends are peo­ple who hap­pen to share many of our opin­ions. With fam­i­ly, this is not always the case. Chances are many peo­ple will only meet some­one with a dif­fer­ent atti­tude towards pol­i­tics on Christ­mas. So, dear read­er, why don’t you ask your­self: What would be an incen­tive for you to study hard­er? Let’s take cli­mate change as an exam­ple. Would you rather talk to your SUV-dri­ving, meat-lov­ing uncle or your class­mate who’s on Greenpeace’s mail­ing list? The les­son to be learned here is: ide­o­log­i­cal diver­si­ty makes you smarter. There­fore, talk to your uncle. 

Let’s say you’re enjoy­ing Christ­mas din­ner with your fam­i­ly. In front of you a col­or­ful col­lec­tion of veg­gies. You turn your head to your uncle’s plate where some uniden­ti­fi­able piece of ani­mal is drip­ping in grease. Now you’ll get into the usu­al argu­ment on whether meat is healthy or not. He says, “Every­body drops dead after ten years of not eat­ing meat.” You’ll find that fair­ly easy to dis­prove, maybe even by your sheer exis­tence. A hard­er chal­lenge is to show how you can be healthy as a veg­e­tar­i­an. If you do it suc­cess­ful­ly, it will also dis­prove his ear­li­er state­ment – as long as he doesn’t con­sid­er drop­ping dead healthy. 

 Now I’m going to list a cou­ple of prac­ti­cal sug­ges­tions that have helped me in con­ver­sa­tions like these. 

  • Don’t expect oth­er peo­ple to be hum­ble and polite. 
  • Don’t be judg­men­tal.  
  • Ask your­self what the goal of this con­ver­sa­tion is. Being right or find­ing truth? 
  • Ask your part­ner to explain their posi­tion. We don’t like being told what to do, much less think. If we have the impres­sion that we have come up with an idea our­selves, it makes it much eas­i­er to adopt it. Being invit­ed to explain our posi­tion enables us to admit the gaps in our knowl­edge. 
  • Con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ty that you’re wrong and the impli­ca­tions that could have. 
  • Be empa­thet­ic and polite. Pol­i­tics is not worth break­ing up friend­ships, so if you real­ize the con­ver­sa­tion is head­ing off rail, be wise enough to end it and thank your part­ner. 

Hope you can avoid all the pit­falls com­ing this year dur­ing the hol­i­day sea­son.  

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Levin Schüren is a stu­dent at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty. He is inter­est­ed in debat­ing and learn­ing about all kinds of issues rang­ing from Pol­i­tics, Phi­los­o­phy of Sci­ence and Moral­i­ty to more prac­ti­cal issues, such as ener­gy and eco­nom­ic development.