‘Tis the season for Christmas songs played on endless loops on the radio, holiday décor stuffed in every free space in the living room, dining room, and kitchen, pretending calories don’t count, and justifying spontaneous shopping sprees. And I love it! The halls in my home are decked from top to bottom, and my kitchen is working overtime as I listen to classic Christmas tunes. And Christmas shopping is my sport of choice.
But then reality sets in… certain relatives + extra sugar + an adult beverage or three = those dreaded political arguments. So instead of feeling jolly about your family get together, some of us channel the Grinch and think about how it’s going to hit the fan. So, what should you do?
I’m not here to sell you a fool proof method on how to have a blissful holiday free from fights because that would require the brainwashing of all our relatives (stop smiling, brainwashing isn’t the solution). And I’m not saying that I don’t have less than graceful moments during political discussions, so these are reminders for myself, as well. But I do have experience with trolls, both offline and online, and so I have a working strategy for dealing with the drama that may unfold during your Christmas celebration.
1. Focus on ideas
One of the worst things about political debates is the unwarranted personal attacks. When someone calls you a white supremacist because you don’t support BLM or a selfish killer because you don’t wear a mask outside, it’s easy to take the bait. Just don’t. I know it’s hard to resist hitting back when these insults are made in front of others, online or in person.
The thing is, if someone is insulting you like this, they aren’t willing to discuss ideas, probably because they can’t. If a stranger on Twitter pulls this stunt, I recommend ignoring it. If someone does this to you in person (especially in front of others), I would just laugh and say something like, “That’s a lie. When you want to have a civil discussion about ideas, let me know.”
If someone is being subtle and telling you that the evidence you’re using to back up your points is wrong because you’re too stupid to interpret that evidence (or something to that effect), I would say, “If you’re unable to talk about ideas instead of making insults and committing logical fallacies, I’m done.” And then walk away if you can.
I know it can feel like the jerk won the argument, but that’s not the case. Anyone with a lick of sense will see that you wanted to talk about ideas civilly and respectfully while the other person was acting like a jack wagon. Of course, the trick is to make sure that you follow through on being civil and respectful in this and other interactions. And learn to be amused by people who have to stoop that low to talk about a subject they likely know little about.
Note: Here’s a handy list of logical fallacies, if you’re interested. Common fallacies committed include the genetic, motte and bailey, ad hominem fallacies. I like to keep these fallacies in mind when talking to others so I don’t commit them myself.
2. Find where you agree
As counterintuitive as it may sound, one of the lessons I learned doing competitive debate in college is that one of the best ways to engage in disagreements is to discover where there is agreement. Not only does this clarify what you’re debating about, it can also reorient an argument into a constructive discussion.
If you discover that there’s some common ground, you could see if you can build on that to create more consensus. If you agree on nothing substantial on a given issue, it’s possible that you can get to the root of your disagreement. Usually people who differ substantially on policy issues also differ on the proper role of government, and the latter may be a less incendiary topic to discuss.
For example, your uncle and you may differ on the finer points of Obamacare, but maybe you both agree that insurance companies are partially responsible for inflated health care costs. Then you could focus more on that. If you can’t agree about insurance companies, pull back and try talking about how we should balance the roles of the government, private companies, and medical providers.
If you’re still getting nowhere, try this next tip.
3. Let the other person explain their point of view and take it seriously.
Sometimes we disagree because we don’t know what the other person thinks, and sometimes the other person simply wants to be heard. If you sense that you’re in a two-ships-passing-in-the-night conversation, or that you’re about to devolve into a yelling match, try this. Tell your sparring partner, “I want to understand your point of view. How about you explain why you think the way you do on this issue?”
Most people would take you up on this offer as long as it’s sincere. Then listen. If you have clarifying questions like “What do you mean by that?” I would say it’s fine to interject them during the explanation. Once the other person is done, try to find something with which you agree. Then, if they seem game, calmly explain why you think differently on one of the points they brought up.
It’s important to do this without trying to score a “gotcha moment.” And don’t try to control the conversation; instead, work on establishing some guidelines by example. Genuinely listen if you want someone to listen to you. Assume that someone with different ideas has a reason for thinking the way they do.
4. Be willing to change your point of view or at least consider another perspective.
I’ve had discussions with people who were never going to admit I was right about anything or change their minds regardless of how ridiculous their position began to sound the more they spoke. If that’s what you’re into, go for it, I guess. I’d prefer to talk to someone who will take my point of view seriously, consider the ideas and evidence I present, and possibly admit when I’m right. I also strive to be this kind of person when I talk to others, although sometimes I fall short.
I think the best way to think about this tip is to consider what you want out of political discussions with your relatives during Christmastime. Do you want to learn something? Do you want to think about issues from a different perspective? Do you want to test your own reasons for your positions so you can reassess your own thinking? Or do you just want to win the argument and embarrass your relatives? I’d say the first three goals are laudable, and clearly the last one isn’t.
May we all remember that blood is thicker than water, and eggnog is thicker than blood. Don’t let your Christmas and/or holiday celebrations fall apart because your relatives may possibly be insane. Insanity is relative… seriously, there’s a genetic component to it. Merry Christmas!
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