Political arguments need reason, not name-calling

It will all start with an innocent remark, just a little comment on the day’s news. Next thing you know, half an hour has disappeared, most of which was spent shouting yourself hoarse over your best friend, and you feel absolutely miserable.

Politics. It does bad things to people.

As this is an election year, it will be impossible, try however hard you may, to avoid every encounter with questions of governance. Unless your views on American politics fall between apathetic and bemused, there will be at least one issue (or person or event) that you feel quite strongly about. Mix such a chance encounter with the issue in question and disaster may be waiting; the instinct to jump in and say your piece could be irresistible.

For the sake of your sanity and your friendships, please, be very careful with how you give in to that instinct.

As an example of how not to discuss politics, just look at any large-enough cross-section of the punditry; inevitably, once the sample becomes large enough, some will fall off the cliff of thoughtful discussion and into the bowels of mockery. Most, at least, have the decency to rise above the name-calling of “Look out! Lib-tard alert!” or “Nazi racist trash!” that fill up comment thread after comment thread. But even when they avoid saying such things directly, the implication can still be there, loud and clear.

It is part of human nature to like being right. We want very much to be right, and often that requires us to denigrate any other belief. Clearly what we think is right. Clearly everyone else must be a fool for thinking differently. Clearly if people were on our level of sophistication, they would agree with us.

However, no good argument exists in a vacuum.

Writers, such as myself, do not just write to fill the void with words; we have readers and want to be read. A good argument, likewise, wants to do something for those who hear it. Maybe the argument wants to convince, or maybe the argument wants to show a new perspective. If all an argument does is pat its speaker on the back and tell them — and anyone who already agrees with them — how awesome and clever they are, then that does a listener who disagrees no good at all.

The delivery of an argument, just as much as the content, is crucial.

If the delivery is particularly bad, it can repulse the listener and make them less likely to agree with the points made, even when those points are great. Jumping into a debate with the full intent of changing someone else’s mind requires a bit of ego, after all, not to mention a feeling that your fellow debater is somehow deficient. Without care, the resulting air of superiority will turn away even the closest of friends.

This is part of the reason why I rarely let myself call anyone a bigot, even though there are plenty of people I think are well-deserving of the title. The only exception I might make is if it is universally agreed said person is a bigot. Otherwise it does no good. If I start calling people names and either they or someone who thinks well of them hears this, they immediately go on the defensive. Instead of listening to my arguments and impassioned pleas, they are thinking what an idiot I am (and probably thinking I am the bigot myself). Whatever hope I had of making a point is long gone.

When we feel as though the fervently-believed truths of our world — actual truthfulness notwithstanding — are under attack, we can cling to those beliefs all the tighter. So if you feel that you really, really must convince someone else that your beliefs are better and, at the same time, you sense that they are getting defensive, then stop. Just stop. Come back to the issue some other time; no further progress can be made.

You will both be glad to be spared the headache.

_Joseph is a graduate student in Mathematics. He can be reached at

[email protected]_