My best friend Zoe is a Libertarian. She wears ‘Gun Totin’ Merica Lovin’ Republican’ and ‘Reagan Bush ’84’ shirts with pride.
I am a liberal Democrat (trending on Green Party) who is far more comfortable wearing a tie-dye t-shirt and flip flops. For people who follow me on social media, you know I am the first to crack a joke on twitter about the political sphere, or seek to engage my community through (fact-checked) activation on social media.
Zoe believes in lower taxes and a small federal government, instead choosing to leave most of these decisions to the state or individual in order to be most effective. I believe in a large federal government which seeks to provide for all of its citizens, especially the most marginalized.
Zoe is the wife of active duty Airman. I graduated with a degree in Peace Studies.
In short, Zoe and I tend to embody the two divergent opinions of Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope.
On the surface, we couldn’t be any more different. We have fundamentally different ideas of how government should work, what social services should be provided, and how to go about solving the greatest challenges of our country.
We are not alone though. As a country, we are more politically divided than any other point in the past 20 years. I once heard a Congressman tell a story stating that after he voted against his party he hid underneath his desk with the lights off in order to avoid his Congressional Whip.
Everyone seems to think they know the answer to what will best solve America’s problems. Cut taxes. Raise taxes. Implement a single-payer health care system. Leave health care to the insurance companies. Implement stricter gun control. Fight for stronger 2nd Amendment rights.
On top of that, selective social media engagement and algorithms determined by big data play a role in what is shown on your social media feeds. This means that I am more likely to see liberal content on my newsfeed and not see opinions that are different than my own. Therefore, we become stuck in our own echo chambers and convinced the content that we are seeing is representative of the general population.
In order to make this point, The Wall Street Journal created Blue Feed, Red Feed. According to Blue Feed, Red Feed, “To demonstrate how reality may differ for different Facebook users, The Wall Street Journal created two feeds, one “blue” and the other “red.” If a source appears in the red feed, a majority of the articles shared from the source were classified as “very conservatively aligned” in a large 2015 Facebook study. For the blue feed, a majority of each source’s articles aligned “very liberal.” These aren’t intended to resemble actual individual news feeds. Instead, they are rare side-by-side looks at real conversations from different perspectives.”
On this site you may click through different topics (e.g. women’s march, abortion, guns, Inauguration) to see what content may be appearing in different newsfeeds on the same political issue. The blue feed looks nearly identical to my daily feed.
This doesn’t even take into account the amount of fake news (might I say ‘alternative facts’) which we encounter on a daily basis from both the left and the right. Through the monetization of fake news, there is an incentive to develop ‘click bait’ titles which either a) are entirely false, or b) take a situation out of its proper context. Through ad sales and mass sharing of these articles, you can actually make money off of hosting entirely fake news. While Facebook and Google have taken steps to address this following the 2016 election, there is no doubt that we are encountering fake news at an increasingly alarming rate.
So how do you do it? How do you break through that echo chamber and actually develop a meaningful conversation (even friendship) with someone who is different than you?
I am not saying you need to become best friends with everyone who is different than you. This isn’t about seeking to change the minds of internet trolls. If your physical well-being or mental health are endangered by continuing a relationship, these tips are not for you.
This conversation is about how to actively build relationships with people who hold different perspectives than you. That being said, relationships are two-way streets. In order for these relationship-building tools to work, you must both be on the same page.
Below are my top 4 tips for engaging with those who have different political opinions than you.
1. Know that your picture may not be the whole picture
When I was applying for a Capital Semester program at Georgetown, my advisor’s first reaction was, “You know they are conservative there, right?” They absolutely were, and I was on the far left of the other people in my program. However, I believe the ideas I was exposed to through my classmates and the program (which only taught classical economics, not Keynesian intervention) taught me how to more fully articulate my opinions on a variety of topics.
Part of my political philosophy is that exposing myself to different coverage and ideas can only contribute to my political growth and ability to more fully articulate my perspective. That is why for my breaking news, not only do I subscribe to CNN, New York Times, and BBC, but also Fox News. I read humanitarian coverage from IRIN and economic coverage from The Wall Street Journal. Diversifying my media coverage has been critical for me in order to understand the perspectives of individuals who I disagree with. In addition, I encourage everyone to listen to Left, Right & Center (which is shockingly not a sponsor of this blog) as it brings together leading voices from both sides of the political spectrum to discuss the week’s major political events through respectful dialogue.
You can’t be an expert on everything. Sometimes this means deferring to each other’s expertise, even if you disagree with their perspective.
I distinctly remember such an event on Zoe’s 21st birthday. After a night of celebrating her birthday with drinks (apple juice of course, hi mom and dad), Zoe and I were settling down onto her living room couches to go to sleep.
As I was about to drift off to sleep I asked, “Hey. When we are more awake, can you tell me a bit more about why you believe what you do on guns? It isn’t an area I am super knowledgable on and I know its one of your main issues.”
“I can do it right now!!” Zoe immediately replied and shot right up.
We ended up staying up for another 4 hours discussing gun control and the right to bear arms, and determining if there was a bipartisan solution to the gun issue. Do Zoe and I agree on everything when it comes to guns? Heck no! Am I far more knowledgable and articulate around the issue of guns in America? Heck yes!
Similarly I recently launched into a conversation with Zoe about Secretary John Kerry’s speech on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis without any context. Zoe stopped me and asked for details regarding the historical background of the crisis and why I believed what I did about it. As I specialize in international affairs and foreign policy, Zoe will ask me questions about it to get my perspective, even if we don’t always agree on what the final result should be.
One note I will make is that Zoe and I have worked to develop a space where we can openly ask each other’s opinions on different topics. When I am trying to learn about these topics I will often ask a ton of questions (e.g. why do you believe this, what about this point, why do you think this is true, how will it impact this other topic). For those who aren’t used to this, it can appear like a cross examination. One of the most helpful tips I have learned in this regard is being open about why I ask the questions by stating, “I know I am asking a lot of questions. I am not trying to throw you off guard, I just want to make sure I have a comprehensive understanding of where you are coming from since clearly you are knowledgeable on this topic.” Most of the times, people have been more willing to open up when they realize that you are coming from a place of good intent as opposed to trying to pick apart their argument.
This leads us to our next area…assuming good intent.
2. Assume good intent
You are going to disagree. Heck, you may even disagree with them to your very core and feel angry that you can’t get your friends to agree with you on everything.
However, one of the most important things I can pass on is to assume good intent.
When I encounter people in my daily life with political opinions who are different than mine [with the exception of internet trolls] for the most part they are trying to come from a good place. Like me, most of these people want to protect their families, take care of themselves, and also want to live a life where they feel fulfilled.
It is easy to demonize a fictionalized “other.” By equating someone’s political opinion which you disagree with as the whole of their personhood, you remove any possibility for future relationship. As I get older (oh sweet quarter-life crisis), learning to assume that even if someone says something I disagree with that they are likely trying to come from a good place has been one of the most helpful skills I have developed.
3. Reframe your argument
Unfortunately in todays political climate, we are seeing an increasing polarization of parties which makes it difficult to cross the aisle. We have also fostered an environment which rewards whoever can shout the loudest as the one with the “correct opinion.”
While those tactics may be good for television ratings, they are detrimental to relationship-building. When you are working to build relationships, respect should serve as the core of the conversation.
When political debates come up, it is easy to fall into abstract concepts and statistics, but you are never going to make a successful appeal to someone on the opposite side with statistics (because they often have statistics of their own that back up their argument). Instead, discuss from the realm of personal experience. I cannot discount Zoe’s personal experience with the military any more than she can discount my experience doing community organizing. By reframing our debates around personal perspectives, not only does it hinder any attempt to “other” someone and define them by their ideology, but contributes to relationship-building.
The easiest way to do this? I-statements (I think, I feel, I want). No, this isn’t just some hippy-dippy lesson I learned in Peace Studies. What this does is automatically reframe your argument to come from a place of personhood, as well as stops it from escalating, which happens when accusations become about you (you did this, you did that).
4. Know when to take a step back
I have said it before and I will say it again, self-care is important. After the election, I wrote an entire post about political self-care. When things get heated, you both need to be open about taking a step back and giving yourself some me-time.
None of these tactics are easy. In order to deepen your relationship with your political opposite you need to make yourself vulnerable and vulnerability can be downright terrifying. However, the problems in this country aren’t going to be solved by increasing polarization and unwillingness to work with those who are different than us. Instead, by working together we are able to develop bipartisan and innovative solutions which could not be reached in our own echo chamber. That is how we build America back up and work for a better future.
What do you think? How do you build relationships with those who have different political opinions than you?
Zoe and I decided to do a collaboration on this topic [We also collaborating on How to: Stay Close With Your Long Distance Best Friend]. Check out her opinions on the topic below. You can also check out the rest of her channel here. Seriously do it, she is amazing: