Photo by Elliot Dorow Hovland

How to talk about politics … and why

Extremes of apathy, partisan divide make having a political conversation a challenge

But it’s worth doing if you know how to navigate through obstacles

When most people talk about politics, they either only talk about it with their friends who agree with them or quickly get into arguments with friends who disagree with them. What’s missing are the lively but friendly, open-minded discussions between people who disagree with one another. Talking about politics in a constructive way is the first step to truly participating in decisions that substantially affect almost everyone’s life.

Politics is something people have to be able to discuss with each other. It is also important for them to know how to do this, so that these conversations remain peaceful and hopefully, helpful.

Why it’s important

So, why is talking about politics important? Why can’t people be allowed to just talk about fashion or sports? According to Collin Quinn, AP U.S. History and Government teacher and varsity football coach, it’s because respectful conversation is an important step towards growth as a person.

“[Discussing politics is] very important,” said Quinn. “Learning to have meaningful conversations with each other is a clear expression of our humanity, and so it is worthwhile. Our students are developing as leaders, and they have gifts and talents, and they need to think about how they’re going to use their gifts and talents  and what they’re going to use them for. Being able to talk with other people is certainly a part of that journey.”

Alina Oxendine, a political science professor at Hamline University, added that political conversations often make a person think about their own beliefs more, and are therefore necessary, especially for younger people, in forming opinions that will affect the rest of their lives.

“Talking about politics often makes you reflect on your own beliefs as you hear about how other people think about politics too,” said Oxendine. “We usually have a give-and-take between rethinking what we believe and just hearing new information, and then it reinforces what we already thought to be true. So it kind of could go either way, but regardless the two are related. Political discussion tends to increase your level of political knowledge.”

It is crucial for people to increase their level of political knowledge, especially in high school. Junior Alex Cheng reflects on his ability to grow and develop his own beliefs for the future through countless political discussions.

“[Politics] sparks good discussion,” said Cheng. “I think it’s important for us as students to be aware of what exactly is going around in the society around us. We’ve got four years here, then four years in college and then we’re full blown citizens. If we don’t know what we’re doing, then what use are we as citizens?”

In spite of these facts, there are lots of people who still don’t care about politics. Nathan Johnson, debate coach and government teacher, reveals that it’s not a new thing.

“I don’t think it’s a new development that Americans are apathetic about politics,” said Johnson. “We’ve seen a steady decline for decades in the percentage of Americans who are voting, the percentage of Americans who trust the government. So I don’t think it’s a new thing. I do think that it matters a lot.”

Apathy towards government decisions may not be a new thing, but according to Oxendine, it’s certainly not a good thing.

“A lot of young people fall into that group of being more moderate, or maybe not having strong feeling about political parties or maybe not even having a good idea of where they are ideologically,” said Oxendine. “In that case, I’d say politics is more firmly rooted in your day-to-day lives than many people realize. For that reason, trying to avoid it altogether is a bad idea because you end up with decisions being made for you instead of with you.”

Maria Tzintzarova, a political science professor at Saint Catherine University, expanded on this.

“It’s very important for younger people to realize that everything in their life is somehow connected to the political system and they don’t live in this little bubble,” said Tzintzarova. “How much financial aid is available for them to go to college, or what kind of clean food or water is available to them? All of those are connected to someone making policies, so those are good conversations to start with: things that are of interest and try to connect to the political system, not to look at politics as very abstract, far away from us in Washington, D.C.”

How to be constructive

It is clear now that political discussions, wanted or not, are necessary to the progression of society. But how can people have these political exchanges of ideas in constructive, non divisive, ways?”

The first step is just where the conversation takes place. In a world filled with different social media platforms, these discussions (and usually arguments) often happen online. Quinn shared his thoughts on internet conversations.

“[Social media] doesn’t lend itself to listening to one another, it’s more like we’re shouting at one another,” said Quinn. “Rather than looking to promote understanding, we’re looking for these ‘gotcha’ moments.”

Having a political conversation in person is the best way to get constructive results, but when having the discussion, what should people do? According to Cole Hanson, the program coordinator for Minnesota’s Model U.N., there are two main things to focus on.

“Have an open mind without necessarily sacrificing your values or your beliefs,” said Hanson. “Having an open mind simply means being willing to accept that there are other ways that something can be interpreted and other ways that someone can view the world. That’s the first thing. Number two is knowing your values. [This] is extremely important. Knowing what’s important to you, not just important to your family or important to your community is really important, because if you don’t know where you’re at, you don’t where you can go and you don’t know what battles are worth fighting.”

While many fight political battles in a metaphorical sense, it’s vital that they not bring anger into their political conversations. Senior Meena Morar, debate state champion, emphasized that winning is not the goal of a political conversation. Rather, learning is.

“I think it’s important just to emphasize that caring about an issue or talking about an issue shouldn’t be about trying to make someone feel bad if they don’t agree with you or shaming other people if they don’t agree with you,” said Morar. “There are so many reasons someone could’ve voted for someone else. And so if you just take the time to listen to people who have different opinions than you, you’ll find that it’s probably healthier for you to hear their different opinions because then you can strengthen your own opinions in the end, and actually have a greater overall knowledge of the other side. I think a lot of times people just speak about things without knowing the other side of an issue.”

Knowing the other side of an issue is the whole point of these political discussions, and to achieve that, Oxendine says one should not make their objective “beating” the other person in these conversations.

“The most important thing is to try not to approach the conversation with the goal of changing the other person’s mind,” Oxendine said. “Approach it in a way that is about sharing your beliefs in a diplomatic way and explaining why you think the way you do, and really listening and providing the same kind of respect for the other person. With that approach, it leads to a better conversation than one with unrealistic expectations about trying to turn somebody around with one conversation, which isn’t probably going to happen anyway. So,  realistic expectations, and a real desire to learn and understand where somebody else is coming from.”

When people treat political debates as opportunities to understand more, when conversations are expected not just to be chances to prove yourself right, but to inform others of your beliefs, these discussions will be healthier. The most important part in making this happen, however, is when people are willing to hear the person they’re talking to. “In order to have a good conversation you have to be willing to listen,” Johnson said. “Really honestly listen, and try to learn something from what the other person has to say.”


About Patrick Cullinan

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