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Last updated: Sep 13th, 2018

Is Politics "Divisive"? How To Have Positive Political Discussion

This is an article version of the message in my YouTube video by the same name. You can watch the video here:

I frequently hear people say that politics is a "divisive" subject, and give advice to people not to talk about politics in certain settings, such as with strangers, or even at work or with family. These claims make it seem like there is something inherent to the topic of politics that causes conflict or division.

I don't agree with these claims, and in this article I will explain why.

My own experience suggests politics is not inherently "divisive": it can go both ways.

I have extensive experience having long, involved political discussion with people who hold different political views from my own, sometimes radically different views. These conversations have been some of the most interesting and fulfilling experiences in my life. Furthermore, I have often experienced deep insight and personal growth as a result of these conversations, and other people have told me that they've experienced something similar.

On the other hand, I have also had negative experiences, both in person or on the internet, where conversations devolve into people talking past each other, often turning into an argument or shouting match in which people leave the conversation feeling angry, offended, and often outright hostile towards each other.

What factors determine whether the conversation is positive or devolves into conflict?

I have been fascinated by the dynamics of conversations and discussions. I have put a lot of thought into this, and I've identtified many different factors that seem to influence how things turn out. But here I want to focus on one particular factor, a key idea that often fuels conflict escalation.

The problematic idea is the idea that if someone has a view sufficiently different from yours, that they are a "bad person".

If you believe in this idea, it sets up a scenario where you allow people to disagree with you a small amount, but if the disagreement gets too big, it's like a switch goes off and you start thinking about the person as "bad", i.e. unreasonable, unintelligent, or acting in bad faith. Such a shift is often accompanied by a series of negative thoughts like:

I've found that self-awareness, the ability to recognize when you are doing these things, i.e. to catch yourself acting out this sort of idea in your own thoughts, holds the key to having fruitful or productive political dialogue with others, especially with people whose views differ from ours.

We cannot control other people, but we can take control of our own thoughts, words, and behaviors. Being aware of this problematic way of thinking, and preventing ourselves from falling into it, is not a guarantee that we will have productive and positive dialogue, but it can ensure that we are not directly contributing to the conflict escalation. This in turn can greatly reduce the possibility of a conflict escalating.

Positive thoughts and beliefs to replace this way of thinking

I've found that it's often hard to give up habits without replacing them with something else. It is often most effective to embrace positive principles rather than to just say: "This thing is bad; I want to stop doing it." In the spirit of this, I want to suggest some ways of thinking, and some beliefs, to replace the ideas that lead to conflict.

Here are some key beliefs I've found helpful to embrace:

Whenever someone voices an idea of perspective that seems crazy or irrational to me, i.e. it seems like it doesn't make sense, and I can initially only imagine a negative interpretation for why they would believe that idea, I find it important to remind myself that the person might have reasons behind what they voiced.

When I think and reflect deeply on my life experiences, I also see a lot of evidence to support this idea. The people that I've taken the time to get to know have nearly always had good reasons for believing the things that they do.

I've found that keeping this observation in the front of my mind leads to more fruitful and positive dialogue, especially on topics where I disagree with people.

Moving forward

I care hugely about promoting respectful dialogue, and I have many more ideas and recommendations about how to do so. If you want to read or watch more, please consider following me on social media and, if you like videos, subscribing to my YouTube channel! You can also find more material on this site. Please share my material too; I see a lot of people sharing negative, disrespectful, and alarmist material and I want to see more respectful voices amplified! I think we could make a big difference in our society if we did this!

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