We Need to Talk About Politics

Last Monday night, friends gathered around common room televisions to watch the first presidential debate. Eager to participate in what for most of us is the first presidential election in which we can cast a vote, we sat down for the debate feeling like educated American citizens, engaging in the political media with our friends and peers. Maybe there were blankets and slippers dragged out into the common room in preparation for the event. Maybe you made popcorn or indulged in a pint of Ben and Jerry’s to celebrate this new sense of adulthood. But it is very likely that for a lot of us, there was a moment or two of tension or controversy with roommates and friends.

Regardless of how well we get along with our friends day to day, sharing everything from taste in clothes to taste in snacks, there is almost no way that a group of people can all share the exact same political opinions. It may be that in the here and now, we live in the same rooms, eat in the same dining halls, and walk through the same campus to the same six academic buildings, but diversity of majors, interests, identities, and backgrounds have insured that we think uniquely and express these unique thoughts accordingly.

It is true that our backgrounds can hinder our political discussions and often make us hesitant to engage in them. For example, everyone has that one friend who insists on regurgitating everything he hears from Mom or Dad and asserting these beliefs and opinions as facts. Another friend could be so set in her beliefs that she’s unable to be open to another person’s truth. More often than not, though, the people we talk to reflect reasonability, the intelligence to know the difference between fact and opinion, evidence and speculation, and a willingness to absorb the world of diverse perspectives that is around them. Therefore, we should view these discussions with our friends and peers as opportunities to learn, to grow, and to adapt our political views according to the points of view they present to us.

Many would still ask “Is it worth it?” or “Am I risking a friendship by continuing to talk about something we can never agree on?” To that, I say, yes, it is worth it: a strong friendship will not come undone over politics, as long as we continue to negotiate policies and candidates and avoid attacking someone personally. In the right kind of political discussion, we can come away with food for thought rather than tensions or grudges. I will not soon forget the point that Professor Celeste Wells in the communication department made in my rhetoric class last fall. Discussions and debates, she often said, should not be avoided for the discomfort they cause. We as a culture have a tendency to avoid conflict at all costs, but how can we solve all of the problems that our country faces today if we are too afraid to talk about them?

So let the debates begin and the discussions flow. Fill conversations with open questions rather than pointed ones, and be open to others’ perspectives. Think about where your friends grew up and how they were raised—this of course will impact their beliefs, but that never means that these beliefs are biased or tainted, only that they are one of many unique American voices. The more voices we can hear and come to terms with, the better understanding we can gain of our country, and the more tangled problems we can begin to unwind until our beliefs are most fully formed. The more opinions we hear and try to understand, the more our blurry, jumbled problems will come increasingly into focus.

Just last week, for example, some friends of mine expressed disbelief at how people can even consider voting for Donald Trump or opting to vote for a third party, which could risk his entry into the White House. I gave them the only perspective of conservatism that I have really come to understand: my father’s.

My parents’ generation was one of small houses and lots of kids, where first-generation Americans worked hard to feed and clothe their families. They dreamed that their kids too would work hard, get better educations, and find better jobs than they had, and they instilled this sense of hard work in their children. They believed that better futures were in sight, but that they had to be earned and worked for.

With this perspective at heart, how can I blame my father for honing in on the problems in the welfare system and all the people who are given government money (his own tax money) when they have not worked for it, and are sometimes not even citizens paying into the country from which they benefit? This is not to say that my father does not believe there are plenty of people who actually need welfare, because they work two jobs and still cannot support their children. These individuals are realities of the welfare system, but so are those who take advantage of it. Given his background, growing up with six brothers and sisters and only one parent bringing in income, and seeing how his siblings have made successful lives for themselves, it is no wonder that he cannot reconcile so many of the realities of liberalism. This is just one example of one perspective of conservatism, but it opens up a broader view of the argument.

In discussions of politics, we shouldn’t necessarily aim to fully change someone’s mind, but should always hope to make another person think in a new way, if only briefly, about the lives of others and how these play into their beliefs. Opening these controversial cans of worms can be messy, but I believe it is our duty to keep opening them and to talk about what unsettles us. The only way progress can be made in America is if we start talking, and keep talking.

Featured Image by David Goldman / AP Photo