Honest Discussions and Debating Politics

I like discussion. It’s been with me my whole life: the unrelenting political arguments at every family holiday were as much a family staple as rice pudding or Cool Whip. I found it also in high school, in Mr. Reynolds’ chess club, where we would dissect arguments about creation and evolution and the existence of God. And I don’t think it’s sheer happenstance that my favorite Bible professor at Northwestern was Ronn Johnson, the guy my classmates called a heretic in hushed voices. It was rare that I would agree with him, but I always had to know my stuff or he would tear through my arguments as though they were wrapping paper.

It’s not just the competitive element of debate I find stimulating. Of course, it’s a wonderful, euphoric sensation to feel the duet of argument and articulation harmonize with each other and sway your opponent. That experience is so rare, however, I’m wondering if I’ve had it more than three or four times, or if I’ve ever experienced it at all. At the same time, the anticipation of the rebuttal, awaiting my turn to speak with swelling impatience, words thick and heavy on my waiting tongue, is an uncommon joy of excitement and suspense. But the thought, “My mind could change…” might be what I enjoy most of all. There is apprehension in acknowledging that I could go from believing one thing to its opposite in a matter of moments.

But discussion is rare. Hobby Lobby served as a fine reminder of that. For every twenty people I talked to about the Hobby Lobby decision, I had maybe one honest discussion.

“It’s the worst SCOTUS decision ever!” I heard multiple people say.

Really? Worse than Dred Scott, the case that ruled that no person of African ancestry could be considered a citizen of the United States? Worse than Plessy v. Ferguson, which established “separate but equal” as acceptable legal precedent? Worse than Korematsu v. United States, which ruled that it was legal for our government to intern Japanese-American citizens during World War II?

David Hume famously said that “Reason is slave to the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them.” The psychologist Jonathan Haidt was referring to Hume when he defined “the first rule of moral psychology”: “feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete.” It  is our nature to make snap judgments and then construct post hoc arguments that support them.

Think of it this way. Say a family owns a dog as a pet. One day, the dog wanders into the street, gets hit by a car, and dies. The family then butchers the dog and eats it for dinner. Is this wrong? Why? Is it wrong to have sex with a dead chicken? Why? That’s what Haidt asked hundreds of people as he was scanning their brains. He found that his subjects had a simple emotional reaction – disgust – and then constructed moral reasoning around that emotion. That is, we don’t have impeccable, rigorous logical support to think we shouldn’t eat our family pet or copulate with a dead chicken. We have an instantaneous gut reaction that we try to justify with paltry arguments.

So when you find yourself embroiled in conversation over a divisive issue and you ask yourself, “Why won’t they listen to reason?” you are asking the wrong question. They – and you, and I, and especially you and I – aren’t actually being rational to begin with. We are being emotional: our hearts race, our nostrils flare, our skin gets hot. Some people hide that emotion better than others, but it’s there. Remember that when you call someone a fascist or racist or an asshole when they “disagree” with your point of view. You are getting frustrated with somebody because they had a different emotional reaction than you did. Why would you have expected otherwise?

When I discuss emotion-heavy political issues, I try to reduce the logic to something emotionally neutral in order to see if I’m still convinced by it. For example, yesterday I read a piece by Jessica Valenti where she called out some of the claims of women’s rights advocates for watering down their arguments. While acknowledging that there are valid health reasons for women to use birth control, she goes on to say “It’s awfully depressing … we can’t just come out and say that most women use birth control for sex.” Fair point. She also said that “Conservatives won’t acknowledge their deep-seated fear of non-reproductive sex.”

I consider myself conservative* and I don’t think I have a deep-seated fear of non-reproductive sex. I fully support people’s right to have sex. I believe that the best way to avoid an unplanned pregnancy (or contracting an STD) is to abstain. But my personal sexual choices – the behaviors I believe to constitute healthy sexuality and sexual expression – are mine, they are held for personal reasons, I don’t have much of a desire to force anyone else to submit to them. I believe I should advocate for them on an interpersonal level, not necessarily a broad social level. That being said, one essential component of the conservative point of view is that you cannot completely divorce an act from its consequences.

Compare that thought process to how we think about eating and dieting. I believe that everyone should have the right to eat whatever they want. I also firmly believe that some diets are healthier than others. For me to say that a whole-food, nutrient-dense diet is more beneficial than, say, a Cheetos-and-Mellow-Yellow diet, I don’t say that out of a deep-seated fear of carbohydrates. The solution to me isn’t to ban junk food; it’s to keep junk food legal while promoting a healthier lifestyle on the interpersonal level. I agree with Ron Swanson when he says, “The whole point of this country is if you want to eat garbage, balloon up to 600 pounds and die of a heart attack at 43, you can! You are free to do so.” But the fewer people that embrace that lifestyle, the better off we all are.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we are all hypocrites, and that none of us are the rational, justice-seeking saints we pretend to be. Like I said before, I like discussion. And I especially value the rare person who makes the effort to understand the viewpoints of the people he or she engages, not for the sake of finding a weakness in their arguments, but to understand what they believe and why they believe it. Hemingway entreated us to listen completely when people talk. I agree. Listen completely, even if you disagree – especially if you disagree. Listen completely, not with heavy tongues but with open ears.


*I should say, I believe that conservative philosophies undergird my reasoning on political issues. I rarely find myself coming to the same conclusions as mainstream Republicans. For example, I voted to support gay marriage. I am pro-life, but I am also a realist, so I think the best way to limit abortions is to limit unwanted pregnancies. Thus, I think wide and cheap access to contraceptives is one of the best ways to prevent abortions.


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