How to Have Rational Political Discourse

Photo by chrisjohn beckett.

Remember when social media used to be fun? Facebook used to be a place to catch up with our friends, share cute pictures of our kids, and have a few good chuckles over cat videos. But those days seem to be over. Today, our social media platforms are filled with fear, anger, and insults as the conversation turns increasingly towards a subject that is often labeled taboo in polite conversation: politics.

The reason most etiquette guides suggest steering a way from discussing politics is readily evident in today’s social media forums: most people are ill-equipped to have such a conversation without it devolving into a shouting match. In this article, I talk about some of the mistakes I see people making and some suggestions for how we could improve our ability to speak rationally about politics.

The Logical Fallacies

A large majority of the political posts on social media (and in all media for that matter) are rife with logical fallacies. I won’t include an exhaustive list here, but here are three examples of some of the most common ones:

  1. The Straw Man Fallacy: This is an argument in which, rather than addressing someone’s actual position, a “straw man” position is invented that is far easier to criticize.

Conservative example: “If we let the liberals open our borders, our country will become infiltrated with terrorists or other people who don’t share our values.” (Most liberals are not suggesting to open the borders, they just may not agree with some of the policies that are proposed to keep them secure.)

Liberal example: “Trump wants to be a dictator. Look at the horrible things that other dictators have done and you can see how bad Trump is.” (Rather than specifically addressing Trump’s actions that are authoritarian or overstepping, a fallacious leap is made to comparing him to a dictator.)

A good practice for rational debate is to be sure that you have accurately captured the other side’s position before criticizing it.

  1. The Exception Fallacy: (a.k.a., Stereotyping, or Hasty Generalizations.) This is an argument which defines a large group by the action of a few.

Conservative example: “This man chooses to collect unemployment rather than go back to work. Lazy liberals are always looking for free handouts.” (The fact that some liberals are lazy does not signify that all liberals are lazy nor that people who are in favor of social support programs are looking for free handouts.)

Liberal example: “The KKK supports Trump which goes to show how racist Trump supporters are.” (The fact that some Trump supporters are racist does not signify that all Trump supporters are racist.)

Take care to not categorize a whole group by the actions of a few. Be wary of media stories that are designed to elicit these kinds of false conclusions.

  1. The False Dichotomy: (a.k.a., False Dilemma, False Choice, Black and White Thinking.) This is an argument that presents only two possible options, when in fact, there are many.

Conservative example: “Obama refuses to say ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ He must be blind to the risks of terrorism coming from the Muslim world.” (There are other reasonable diplomatic reasons for not wanting to label terrorist actions as being representative of Islam.)

Liberal example: “If you want to put restrictions on immigrants coming from Muslim countries, you must be a racist.” (There are other reasonable security reasons for wanting to restrict immigration from certain countries.)

Avoid simplifying arguments into “either-or” statements. Watch out for arguments that attempt to lure you into choosing one of only two possible positions. Allow for the broad range of possibilities that underlie most political issues.

A Better Way

It is important to have healthy discussion around the issues that are most important to us. The key is to find ways to express ourselves that are productive and allow us to find areas of mutual agreement.

  1. Stay personal. One way to avoid making logic errors in your discourse is to stick to what you know: your own thoughts and beliefs. It is possible to express your own views on an issue without directly criticizing anyone else’s views. Rather than arguing for or against a party line, share your own ideas and how they may be different than the stereotypes.
  2. Stay positive. Speak more about what you like than what you dislike. Speak more about what you want than what you fear. One of the reason that political discussions tend to devolve in a downward spiral is due to our “negativity bias.” We are more expressive about the things we don’t like, which elicits a defensive response, which in turn elicits more defensive responses. Create upward spirals by talking about what you would like to see more of.
  3. Stay rational. The above are only a few of the logical fallacies that are most prevalent in today’s dialogue. Educate yourself about other logical fallacies and avoid them in your own discourse. Question your own views as strongly as you question those of the opposition. Be wary of media sources that use these fallacies to distort the issues and elicit stronger reactions from their subscribers. Presenting a demonized straw man is a great way to generate clicks and comments, but it does little to solve the real problems that our country faces. Don’t engage with people who regularly post articles and comments that are based on logical fallacies (other than perhaps to gently point out the flaw in their argument.) Hold people accountable for being rational. Dismiss or ignore them if they aren’t. Otherwise you risk spending a lot of time and energy arguing about issues that don’t really exist.

If these ideas don’t work, we could also use more funny cat videos.

Resources and recommended reading: 

Bennet, B. (2013). Logically Fallacious: The ultimate collection of over 300 logical fallacies.

Photo Credit: chrisjohnbeckett Flickr via Compfight cc
By Jeremy McCarthy

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