15 Mar 2022

How to argue about politics

A world without arguments or dissension would be grey indeed – and often the most satisfying of altercations are those that do not descend into anger and remain untainted by the red mist of rage. After all, the ‘aim’ of an argument should not be solely about winning but about progressing the basic understanding of the issue at hand – and this is achieved more easily if everyone remains calm.

If you’re in an environment where a stand-up, passionate political row is not desirable (an office, a dinner-party where you’re being introduced to your fiancée’s parents etc.), then it is probably a good idea to lay off politics altogether, or at least gauge the prevailing political climate – in these circumstances, a heartfelt concurrence is bonding, dissent is likely to be damaging. In a more knockabout environment, there is no reason not to join the fray.

One rule of thumb when involved in a political dispute is always to be more civil than the person you are arguing with; that way, you’re not spiralling down to name-calling and all-out conflict, you’re actively holding on to the moral high ground. Shouting loudly to make your point is excusable in primary school but doesn’t look very dignified when you’re sitting around a dinner table.

Just be sure that you know what you’re talking about and have the facts straight before you lay into anyone. Don’t let your argument wander into subjective emotions and try not to let your feelings about a situation blunt the incisiveness of your discourse. Avoid -isms at all costs – the use of labels leaves you wide open to accusations of generalisation and makes people instantly defensive.

Avoid polarisation and adopting extreme positions to make a point. Consensus or compromise lies in the nuanced middle ground, where concessions are made and differing points of view are acknowledged.

Work towards agreement, not point-scoring. Concede a point when you have no response to it, and have the guts to admit when you are arguing a point based on bias or intuition alone – people will be disarmed by your honesty. Citing vague ‘sources’, or referring to ‘someone I know’ will only confer a spurious authority and can easily be shot down and discredited.

Beware ranting and monologues. It is easy to get carried away when you’re passionate about a subject, but if you find yourself talking uninterrupted for minutes at a time, and look round to see an audience with glazed eyes and a distracted air, that is probably a clear indication that you have held the floor for far too long and are in danger of becoming a bore.

Underlying all disagreements is an agreement that the other person’s opinion is a valid one and that you are at least going to listen to their side of the argument. For some people, the opposite of talking isn’t listening, the opposite of talking is waiting for the other person to stop talking. Do not argue with these people, it’s just not worth the effort.

Finally, apologise there and then if you’ve said something you might regret later. We all know how easy it is to get carried away by the heat of argument, and passionate conviction is often accompanied by disinhibition and volatility. But it would be a great shame if arguing about politics, discussing the issues of the day, and disagreeing about fundamental beliefs, all became a social taboo because of the collateral damage caused by intemperate exchanges. So remain self-aware, exercise self-restraint, and if you lose your temper, acknowledge you have gone over the top and apologise.

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