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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