Should you talk to your political opponents?

Charlotte Allen has a rather baffling piece in the Los Angeles Times. She begins like this:

A few years ago Ann Coulter published a book titled “How to Talk to Liberal (If You Must).” With all due respect, Coulter, one of my favorite conservative eye-pokers, was wrong. There is no “how” in talking to a liberal. You can’t talk to a liberal, period.

She then goes on to cite numerous cases in which she attempted to. This one is my favorite:

[A]s I was defending my doctoral dissertation on a medieval topic, I mentioned that wealthy women of that time often functioned as patrons of the arts, commissioning beautifully decorated religious books. “Women like pretty things,” I said. OMG! I looked around at the three learned but liberal female professors on the committee, their smiles suddenly frozen into rictuses, groans issuing from their lips. How was I going to tell my husband, who had already made the reservations for a celebratory dinner, that I’d failed the defense? (Fortunately, I didn’t, but it was a scary moment.)

I mean, that’s just nit-picking, in my opinion. If they had failed her over it, that would be another matter, but as it stands I don’t see why she should whine about a minor incident like the expression of someone’s face. Or at least don’t go using “these people looked at me funny once” to support a generalization about the adherents of an entire ideology.

(As an aside, I have had very interesting conversations about gender differences with liberal friends of mine–liberal female friends, at that! So, I can match Ms. Allen’s anecdotal evidence with some of my own.)

It’s not really a very ambitious article. It seems like its primary point amounts to “liberals suck”, and it never moves beyond that.

But wait! The L.A. Times, being a fair publication, also has a liberal, Diana Wagman, submit her views on the issue of “liberals vs. conservatives”.  The point of it, essentially, is that she is a liberal and she and her conservative neighbor got along fine until they found about one another’s politics, at which a point they yelled at one another a lot. And now she feels bad because they hate each other.

The two articles conform almost humorously to stereotypes–the conservative says that liberals suck, and the liberal remarks how sad it is that there’s so much hate in the world.

So, I guess another anecdote of mine is in order. Two of my friends in college were conservative, and I don’t think either of them knew I was a liberal. Whenever they’d say something like “those liberals are a bunch of idiots”, I’d say something like “Oh, yeah? What have they done now?” Then they would tell me, and I would smile and nod. I generally was able to ask them their opinions of things without them ever asking me for mine. And that suited us all just fine.

Should I have spoken up? Am I a traitor to the cause for not doing so? Maybe. But I didn’t think it was likely I would change their minds, and so I made a calculation that it was better to have friends I could rely on in matters not political than not have them at all.

On this blog, of course, I take a different tack: I tell people my views, and if they express different ones, then I am happy to debate with them. Mostly, this is because it will leave a written record, and it’s possible–unlikely, but possible–that someday I may write something interesting in the course of debating that might be useful either to the person I’m debating or else to some third-party who happens by and reads it. But this was very unlikely to happen in conversation.

Most people are not  good at spoken debate. I know I’m not. The closest thing we have to professional debaters are lawyers, and there’s a reason it takes so much training to be one of them. It’s a very difficult skill. Moreover, it’s even worse in political matters, because the two parties actively try to teach their techniques that are designed to benefit the Party, not further discussion or aid in arriving at something like the truth.

That’s what “talking points”, slogans and similar things that political parties put out are for; to keep people from having honest debates. Despite my reluctance to do so, I have been involved in a few spoken debates with Republicans. And I have witnessed many more between friends and family members. They can be quite amusing to watch because the participants on both sides very quickly fall into saying remembered phrases and slogans that they have learned from somewhere. It’s not really a debate; it’s like two synchronized recordings. This is true even for debates between actual politicians–the only difference is that they are usually better at hiding what they are doing.

Most people support their party fairly instinctively, and only learn the reasons and arguments they are putting out as a way of having something to say on their behalf. Personally, I try to always state my reasons for why I support them, and not their reasons for why I ought to support them. It’s very surprising how tough that can be.

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