December 19, 2018 | ° F

O'BRIEN: People must learn to engage in discussion


Opinions Column: Taming Tribalism


connorobriensite

College students returned to school this year in the midst of one of the most heated midterm campaigns in decades. Each party has crafted an utterly cartoonish portrayal of the other, with President Donald J. Trump insisting the Democratic Party does not care about crime while some Democrats claim the incumbent party’s insistence on massive cuts to immigration is rooted in white nationalist sentiment. This demagoguery in our national politics has spread to college campuses too, as evidenced by the rise of activists like Charlie Kirk and his counterparts on the Left, who shun the very idea of rational discourse. 

So how can students navigate political discussion and debate in an era that values “owning” your political opponents over genuinely engaging them? Here are a few tips.

First, approach your opponent from a place of mutual respect. Most people — including those not part of your political party or on your cultural team — have good intentions and motivations, but disagree on how best to implement these ideals. Your conservative friend probably cares about poverty just as much as you, but simply believes a market-oriented approach is more effective than one that redistributes through government. Similarly, your progressive classmate probably does not hate police officers, but instead feels the war on drugs has done great harm to certain groups and that more community policing can produce better outcomes. 

It is nearly impossible to genuinely engage with someone if you view them as worthless or ill-intentioned. The truth is, most of us share the same basic values, but just disagree on how those values should be manifested in public policy or public discourse. Even if your opponent is wrong, their position and reasoning can provide insights that strengthen your own argument, while listening rather than shutting them out will make them more likely to be convinced you are correct. At the same time, insisting on characterizing your opponents as evil makes it harder to call out those who truly do have bad intentions. There are racists, sexists and anti-American people out there, but if you spend your days attaching those labels to everyone you come across, it will ring hollow when you confront the real thing.

Second, seek out empirical evidence. On complicated issues such as the economic effect of the recent tax reform, you cannot possibly find the answer through mere reasoning. Economies and societies are simply too complex to decipher the effects of one policy or another with your eyes alone. You may think you know what the effects were, but unless you have actually sought out empirical evidence and analyses from experts, your interpretation is probably just based on tribal instincts. You do not have to read the all-academic literature on a policy issue to have an informed opinion, but if you find yourself making a claim based simply on word of mouth or what you hope the answer is, you have not done your due diligence. 

To demonstrate why this is important, take the examples of gun control and tax policy. If everyone took the time to evaluate the empirical evidence of gun control and tax reform’s effectiveness, people’s stances on those issues should not be correlated, since they are completely unrelated to each other. But polling shows you can reliably predict someone’s views on one based on the other. This indicates that people are not actually thinking critically about these issues, but listening to signals from those who they perceive to be on their side.

Finally, do not make a caricature out of your opponent’s argument. If your opponent’s stance sounds so absurd that no one could possibly hold it, you are probably representing it dishonestly. People love to engage with absurd arguments because combating those allows them to avoid critically re-evaluating their prior beliefs. If your rebuke to a Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) voter is to point out the economic disaster in Venezuela, you are not making a genuine attempt to understand their argument, as Sanders’s platform looks nothing like the causes of that country’s collapse. There is no doubt many parallel examples on the Right. If you cannot even identify what it is you are arguing about, what is the point of debating at all?

Discussing political issues with those on the other side can be frustrating, but it can also be incredibly rewarding if you engage earnestly. It may be more fun in the short-run to mock and ridicule those with whom you disagree, but in the end it will only make people less receptive to your points and more likely to counter your vitriol with dishonesty of their own. We are all stuck here with each other for a while, so we might as well talk it out in good faith.

Connor O'Brien is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in economics. His column, "Taming Tribalism," runs on alternate Thursdays. 

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Connor O'Brien

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