In Search of Civility: Talking Politics

People disagree all the time. For every strong opinion, there is an equally strong and opposite one. Yet not all disagreements lead to uninviting family members to Thanksgiving dinner or end in destroyed friendships. Political disagreements, on the other hand, have become increasingly harmful and difficult to handle.

Why is this happening?

Recent research by social and political scientists suggests two broad answers to the question, “Why is it so difficult to talk politics with the other side?”  

The first answer is about the positive correlation between highly divisive topics and anxiety: the more divisive and polarizing the topic, the higher the anxiety. People feel anxious when there is a lack of a society-wide consensus about a political topic. For example, most people can talk without undue anxiety about important issues such as food safety, the right to clean drinking water and early-childhood education because there is a consensus about the value of these issues.

Now be aware of your feelings as I suggest talking about topics that are highly divisive: climate change, immigration, gun control. For many of us, simply hearing these topics named triggers feelings of worry and unease – that is, anxiety. Although anger is not generally considered to be a symptom of anxiety, mental-health experts agree that anxiety often underlies the expression of anger.

Anxiety and its close relative, fear, are highly useful emotions because they alert us to real or perceived danger or threats to our safety and well-being. The physiological reaction to threats is the well-known stress response of fight, flight or freeze: We prepare to defend our position, walk away to avoid the discussion or become immobilized. This set of responses is well designed for self-defense, but not for solving problems or building consensus.

The second answer to the question, “Why is it so difficult to talk politics with the other side?” comes out of research on moral conviction. To explain moral conviction, researchers use the example of two people who oppose the death penalty. One thinks that the death penalty is morally wrong, whereas the other believes that it is ineffective in deterring crime. Both strongly support their positions, but the first person bases his viewpoint on moral conviction.

The research of psychologist Linda Skitka and her colleagues at the University of Illinois-Chicago suggests that when people consider their position on an issue to be a matter of right versus wrong, or good versus evil, they show a low tolerance for those who hold the opposite view. They are disinclined to engage or even associate with a person who disagrees with them on that issue, at times even placing their chair away from the person with an opposing view.

These obstacles to genuine dialogue about political issues are legitimate and not easy to overcome. Want some free advice? Seriously, do you want some free advice about how to talk with people who disagree with you without setting off the fight-flight-freeze response or disintegrating into moral outrage?

You’ll have that chance tomorrow – Saturday, March 16 – during a free, three-hour workshop on this topic hosted by the Door County Civility Project. There’s no need to sign up – just show up. We hope to see you there.

Melting Defensiveness, Opening the Heart: A Three-Step Process That Turns Conflict into Connection

Saturday, March 16, 9 am – 12 pm

Door County Community Foundation, Rock Island Room, 222 N. 3rd Ave., Sturgeon Bay