Friday, November 9, 2012

How I Argued my Way Through the Election Without Unfriending Anyone

Full disclosure: On balance, I'm delighted with the way the recent U.S. election (you might have heard about it?) went.  Pretty much all the candidates I was rooting for won their races, and the state and local ballot issues I cared about most went the way I wanted them to go.  Billionaires who dumped money into shadowy Super PACS might be thinking of investing elsewhere in the future; and who knows?  The failure to buy elections by makin' it rain on the democratic process may even allow campaign finance reform to move forward one day.  Plus--big advances in gay rights!  And weed legalized in two states!  (Now I can have legally induced panic attacks in Colorado and Washington!) Also, we didn't have to sit around for hours, days, or weeks waiting for results.

My triumph-tinged retrospect might go a long way to explaining this, but, unlike the hundreds of people I've heard complaining about how our outsized election cycle pits Americans against one another, I actually enjoyed the past few months, and I feel pretty optimistic about the way we handled ourselves.  Sure, there was a lot of rancor reported in the media, and on other people's Facebook pages (i.e., the frequent "I can't wait until this is over so I can un-block half my friends" statuses); but the people in my life were pretty decent to one another.  And even the horrible things that people did and said in the world outside of my bubble seemed less frequent and more subdued then they did the last time around.  I mean, there must have been at least a 30% drop in Obama-being-lynched effigies reported.  That's progress, people!

But back to my circles of family, friends, and acquaintances.  I have to admit that most of the people I hang out with in real life and online are well-educated, middle-class lefties like myself.  That kept my frustration levels low during the election.  And I don't have a TV, so I missed out on all the political ads except for the ones I sought out because I had heard how outrageous or unintentionally hilarious they were.  I listened to NPR incessantly, as I usually do, watched clips of the Daily Show and Colbert Report making fun of Fox News, and eavesdropped on the AM radio-talkers to keep abreast of the right-wing talking points.  So I had a sense of what was going on in the media, even if I didn't consume it in the intended way.  

Although I don't have very many vocally conservative friends, and I live in a neighborhood where hardly anyone puts Obama signs in their yards but only because it pretty much goes without saying around here, I have had plenty of opportunities to argue with people about candidates and issues.  My immediate family and siblings skew left, except for one wayward sister.  But the rest of my blood-relatives, save maybe one moderate uncle, trend red and churchy.  I have a handful of friends who are mainline Republicans, but probably more who are on the Libertarian end of the spectrum.  They are all good people.  Some are completely wrong and deluded in terms of politics, but they're good people nonetheless.

During the two or three months before election day, I averaged maybe one political argument per day, and probably 98% of them occurred on Facebook.  And yet, I never felt compelled to hide anyone from my newsfeed, or unfriend them altogether.  We tried our best to convince one another, often passionately, that our analyses of the problems facing our country, and the solutions we needed to implement to fix them, were more more sound than theirs.  We invoked the rhetorical appeals of logos, ethos, pathos, and YouTube videos.  We sometimes made biting remarks about our respective candidates.  We called each other wrong, but we never called each other idiots or Nazis.

There was a lot of talk during this election cycle about lack of civility in public discourse and friends and family feuding due to ideological differences.  I got a little heated during a few discussions, but I never wanted to disown anyone, and I don't think they wanted to disown me.  (Wait.  Is there some way to tell if you've been blocked on Facebook?  Because that might explain the lack of vitriol in response to some of the stuff I posted.  Maybe I've been disowned without my knowledge.)

The best advice I heard about talking politics without hurting feelings--and of course I didn't hear it until election day was upon us--was on an episode of This American Life (of course.)  On the show, a pair of authors discussed their book about how not to estrange your friends and family while talking politics: You're Not as Crazy as I Thought (but You're Still Wrong): Conversations between a Die-Hard Liberal and a Devoted Conservative.  In the interview, one of the authors offered a simple solution: Don't try to change your opponent's mind; just try to understand where he's coming from.

I think I've always been pretty good at trying to understand my opponents' point of view, and maybe that's why my political conversations don't usually end up in rifts.  But I'm not so good at not trying to change their minds.  It's hard not to think that someone you like, and who you think is smart and kind, can be turned.  And perhaps even more difficult is not wanting to win the argument.

Unlike a lot of my Facebook friends, I don't think we should avoid talking about politics.  I don't mind looking at pictures of your kids, but I want to talk about the important stuff too.  And next time around, I promise that instead of trying to convert you into a Hillary Clinton supporter, I'll try to understand why you've hitched your wagon to Jeb Bush.  Or Ron Paul.  Or Ted Nugent.


  1. I'm always wary of Facebook arguments (discussions?) because it never seems there's any guarantee of how long your opponent (participant?) will stick around to work through stuff with any nuance. Like pulling up at a stop light with your windows rolled down, and calling out to the person in the next lane over,

    "Hey, I heard your candidate is a sleeper agent for Al Qaeda. Oops, it's green! See ya later!"

    But maybe that's just been my experience. I totally resonate with the tip you got from This American Life, though. It's such a charitable effort, to try to understand someone else. It suggests you care about something more than your own ego. Now if only I could put it into practice.

    1. That's a good point about Facebook being a problematic forum. I think a lot of my friends chose not to engage for that reason. It's so frustrating when you rebut someone's comment and then they never acknowledge. The stoplight metaphor is apt.

  2. I JUST listened to that episode of TAL and it definitely gave me something to think about. I definitely have a hard time understanding where people are coming from, which is because I used to be on the other side of the political fence. Then I learned more about the world, realized I was coming from a very selfish place and changed my opinions. So when I see someone with my old views I think "Well if I just EDUCATED them, they'd change their mind too!"

    So I mostly try to avoid it. I also tend to do the drive by commenting when it comes up on Facebook, but then feel extremely guilty about it for hours.

    What I'm saying is I'm REALLY glad the election is over.

    1. Does anyone change from liberal to conservative after seeing more of the world? Just curious...

    2. No. It's almost impossible to have visited 20-30 countries, many of them developing, not to mention much of the US, and not be fairly liberal. But I too am glad the election is over. I was so dreading a dragged-out repeat of 2000.

  3. I'm a chickenshit. I avoid almost all political discussions. But then, I get to have them out face-to-face at home with my Republican-leaning husband.

    I'm also usually shamefully unprepared to combat fact-checking questions. If Stewart or Colbert didn't mention it, I probably don't know about it.


Don't hold back.


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