Can We Discuss Politics and Religion?

By Robert Bernstein   |   December 31, 2020

“If you want to avoid heated arguments, never discuss religion, politics, or whether the toilet paper roll should go over or under.” So said the wise sage “Weird Al” Yankovic.

Religion and politics go to the very heart of our deepest values. If we avoid discussing what matters most to us, how can any learning and progress occur in a democratic society?

“Weird Al” reveals several profound points. First of all, almost any choice or topic in life can turn into a heated argument. Which sports team do you support? Do you care about sports at all? Do you use a PC or a Mac? An Android or an iPhone? Or no such technology at all?

How about food? Try talking food in mixed company of a carnivore and a vegan.

How about pets? Try talking pets in mixed company of a cat person, a dog person, a horse person and/or someone who finds owning pets wasteful, annoying, and abhorrent.

The classic “safe” topic of discussion? The weather. Really? Is it even honest to talk about current extreme weather events without discussing the climate crisis?

As for the toilet paper, there is a tribal aspect to this. Each family has its traditions. My mother always put it down the back. My college girlfriend came from an over-the-top family. She made a rational case for why it is easier to reach the toilet paper that way.

It was a transformative moment for me in many ways: I realized I did not have to follow what my family did. They might even be wrong. I also realized that such a contentious topic could in fact be settled by rational discussion. Listening, learning, and changing is possible.

Is there a better way than making politics, religion, or any other topic taboo? The circle of taboo topics is ever widening as people form ever more tribes and hook up with ever new closed silos of social media.

Perhaps we can learn to discuss all topics in a civil and respectful way instead of avoiding them?

I do not claim that I am necessarily the best model for civil discourse. But I do try my best at times. The first step is to start with yourself. Are you able to stay calm when the other person says something you disagree with? It is good to visualize and mentally practice this in advance.

The next step is to remember to listen and understand as much as possible before speaking at length. Think of it as a gift that you have a chance to hear the views of someone outside of your usual circle of friends and familiar views. You may even find that they have a valid point.

Everyone has needs in life. It is not reasonable to deny a person’s needs. If someone has a basic need like shelter or food, it is not reasonable to ask them to wait for a long-term solution. By listening and acknowledging needs it may be possible to satisfy that need in a way that is acceptable to all sides.

We might want to draw the line at some acceptable limit. Perhaps sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.? But even in such obvious cases it might be worth listening to find out what need they are expressing. Even if they are mistaken. A person might believe that they were not hired due to affirmative action. Or that are not safe living next door to a person of a certain background.

It may be impossible to convince them they are mistaken. But it also may be that you need better facts on your side.

Consider the current political situation where each side creates a caricature of the other side. I am on the mailing list of Trump and many spin-off right-wing lists. They claim that people like me want the U.S. to be a Communist dictatorship. Do they really believe that?

Conversely, does anyone really think that all 70 million Trump voters are racist haters? Believe it or not, some of them really do like what others find most offensive: His unfiltered way of speaking. They see him as a refreshing alternative to “professional politicians” who speak a good game but never deliver on raising their quality of life.

I see his actions as largely self-serving, dishonest, and harmful to most Americans. But I make my case with facts and I am grateful to listen to what his supporters have to say. As long as they are willing to listen to what I have to say.

Can we please listen and discuss what matters most to us?


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