I hesitate to discuss politics but I find it difficult to ignore how the way we perceive politics, politicians, truth, and the media has changed over the past few years. Maybe this has been a shift that’s been happening for awhile and I’m only starting to become aware of it, but regardless I think it’s worth responding to. My concern is not with the politics themselves, but with how we as voters and citizens engage with the democratic process and how we discuss politics with others. Hence this article! I truly hope some of the discussion points here are helpful.
- Think carefully about where you get your news from.
One of the unfortunate side-effects of social media is its ability to become an echo-chamber, and this carries over into your news sources. This is especially true when you primarily get your news from one source or only a few sources, especially if those sources are controlled by one company. If that source is partisan, it can lead you to distrust other news sources. Once one news source controls most of where you get your news and what news you trust, you’re in a dangerous place indeed.
What to do about it: Diversify where you get your news and doing a bit of research as to how partisan your news source is. See the bottom of this article for a review of media angles which is helpful to consider when thinking about this.
- How you engage with people is more important than what you discuss.
If you belittle someone online and make fun of their views, they’re more likely to dig in deeper (I talk more about this in 9). If you really believe that what you have to say is worth people knowing, you need to be gentle and wise about how you engage with people. Take conversations offline where possible. When online, remember that text is ambiguous – both for you and who you’re talking to.
What to do about it: Don’t be a terrible person online (or in person). If you really believe your ideas are important, you should care about how they are communicated. Awful people are rarely persuasive.
- Don’t get all your political information from Fox or comedians.
The modern age (I know, I know, I’m pontificating) has seen a withdrawal from engagement in politics and policies. This gap has been filled by more popularized forms of news coming from a wider range of more partisan sources. Two great examples of this are Fox news and late-night comedians (although at least the comedians don’t claim what they do is straight news).
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s helped many people become engaged in politics, and it has encouraged many people to look at policies who otherwise may not have. The problem is that these kinds of sources should not be the only place you get your news. By popularizing, humoring, or polarizing the news, they paint an incomplete picture of the world.
What to do about it: Don’t get all your political information from Fox or comedians. They say reinforcement helps.
- Be humble, but be wise.
Know what you know and be prepared to admit what you don’t. That being said, there’s a line you have to walk between being admitting what you don’t know and being a pushover. Try not to get confused or feel scared when someone seems to know more than you. Sometimes people try to hide poor reasoning behind big words.
What to do about it: Be prepared to admit when you are unsure of something. Just be honest. And if you get the sense someone is trying to hide behind facts and words and muddy the issue, ask clarifying questions until you can get clearer answers from them. This a) helps them understand and communicate their ideas better and b) helps to highlight where they have been unclear.
- Think carefully about being a one-issue voter.
Sometimes a particular policy can become really important to us, especially if the policy strongly represents one of our values. Often for Christians an example might be abortion, for the typical conservative it might be small government, and for liberals it might be same-sex marriage or immigration policies. This might tempt us to vote for a politician solely on the basis of that policy, which is understandable when it’s so near and dear to our hearts.
The problem, though, is that a politician and party stand for a diverse set of policies which are all important for deciding the direction of a country, and there is no single policy that establishes that. Rather, the overall stance of the party and the pressures placed on the PM or President may end up being far more significant than the platform a particular politician runs on. And, of course, there’s always the chance a politician will backflip and decide that that policy of yours is no longer a priority.
What to do about it: Consider the overall stance of the party and take a campaigning politician’s promises with a grain of salt. Make sure you consider all the angles before becoming a one-issue voter.
- Don’t believe stereotypes until you know a ‘type’ personally.
You all know where I’m going with this but I don’t intend this to just apply to immigration. That being said, I think it’s important to recognise that knowing immigrants personally often results in more positive attitudes towards immigration and that immigration may certainly be a good thing. Before you make broad judgements about a people group, it’s helpful to know some people from that group. So before you make big sweeping statements about people, whether they be immigrants, democrats, republicans, or in Australia the left or the right, make sure you know a few of them first. You’ll be less likely to do 7.
What to do about it: Know people personally before you typecast them.
- The other side of politics from you aren’t vicious demonic vampire robot nazis.
This sounds a little facetious, but I use strong language to make a point: far too often I’ve observed people misrepresenting each other and talking down to each other when having political conversations. And when someone has a choice to interpret someone charitably or uncharitably, they seem to choose uncharitably every time. It’s why many have shied away from engaging online. The distance online interaction creates means you’re more likely to get away with awful behavior you’d never do in person.
What to do about it: When you read something that angers you, take a step back. Do you really believe that person is deliberately pushing your buttons? Is there another way of interpreting what they’ve said? Believe the best in people. It’ll take you far.
- Surprise! I actually hate clickbait.
- Resist the tendency to dig in when you hear plausible objections.
When you have discussions with people often there are others lurking, and this creates pressure to try and appear like you have it all together or that you’re always right. Obviously that environment doesn’t make for a great discussion – you’ll be too tempted to dig in and try to defend yourself when someone makes a valid point. This is a pretty well-established psychological fact about human beings – when presented with credible information counter to what we believe, that can often make us dig deeper into our own views. This happens even if you secretly think the person you’re chatting with is right. Basically, it results in as cognitive dissonance or motivated reasoning (it’s also known as the backfire effect) – you seek out things you want to believe and try to ignore things you don’t. There’s a great discussion on this here (https://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/06/10/the-backfire-effect/, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-people-fly-from-facts/ and https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/03/this-article-wont-change-your-mind/519093/).
What to do about it: When you encounter arguments that oppose what you believe, before reacting, try to think first about how valid their argument is. If they haven’t phrased it well, try to make it into its strongest possible version and think about it fairly. Don’t nitpick on one poor word choice, get a sense of what they mean and respond to that. Resist the urge to fight back because you don’t want to be seen as foolish. I have far greater respect for the person that says ‘I don’t know’ than the person that makes up a response to sound credible.
- Not always being able to change minds is not an excuse for not engaging.
You might read 9 and think ‘what’s the point’. If I try to convince people and they only dig in deeper, why try to engage or persuade or clarify what you believe at all?
Well, think about voting. By that logic, you shouldn’t vote. One vote isn’t going to make a difference in who gets elected or not, so why bother. If everyone used your reasoning, however, then no one would vote.
Over and above this, I think that personally you have a responsibility to yourself to engage with society about what you believe. It’s part of what makes democracy great.
What to do about it: Engage. Interact. Persuade. Don’t just disengage because it’s hard sometimes.
- Even politicians occasionally deserve the benefit of the doubt. Soundbites aren’t always helpful.
As much fun as it is to get clips of politicians saying contradictory things (and believe me, it is fun), this isn’t very charitable. You might say – they’re politicians, they lie all the time, they don’t deserve charity. But this isn’t about what they deserve, it’s about what the country deserves. Help to lift the discussion where possible.
- Listen, understand, then speak.
We have a tendency to start forming our own response to someone while they’re still speaking. Stop that. You’ll be more likely to misrepresent someone if you jump in while they’re still figuring out what they’re trying to say.
What to do about it: Seek first to understand, then be understood. It’s a great aphorism for a reason. Don’t misrepresent people. Listen carefully and really try to understand what someone is saying before you jump in with a response.
Helpful sites/tables for assessing media bias:
 Thussu 2007.
 The contact hypothesis is the name for this phenomenon, and it is pretty well-evidenced as far as sociological-psychological theories go. See, for example, Allport (1954), Pettigrew (1998), Pettigrew and Tropp (2011), Emerson, Kimbro, and Yancey (2002), Ellison, Shin, and Leal (2011), and Oliver and Wong (2003). That being said, in some particular circumstances negative attitudes towards immigration may increase, such as in a racially diverse metropolitan area. For research on how immigration may benefit economies, see Card (2005), Is the new immigration really so bad?