On political civility

By Page Forrest

Managing Editor

According to Emily Post, every etiquette guide ever, and your grandmother, there are three things that should never be discussed at the dinner table: politics, taxes, and how sausage is made. No offense meant to Mrs. Post, but I’m afraid I must disagree. There is no reason people should avoid discussing politics, so long as a grain of civility is involved.(Taxes, being the centerfold of our economy, will inevitably come up in a political discussion.)

On the first day of “Beyond the Gates,” the weekend seminar hosted by Career Services and Leadership Development for juniors and seniors, we were instructed to avoid bringing up politics or anything controversial in our small talk with alumni, for the sake of maintaining “polite conversation.” I turned to David Terrell (C’17), my fellow Politics major, and we shared an eye roll (probably also not the best etiquette).

Thankfully, my mentor for the weekend, Margaret Barton (C’78), shared my feelings. Upon meeting, we immediately launched into a discussion about her work on President George H.W. Bush’s campaign and work with the Republican National Committee. Despite differing political leanings, we were able to carry on a lively and entirely civil discussion. The conversation lasted well into dinner, where our tablemates shared our feelings: There is no reason to avoid discussing politics, so long as everyone is capable of maintaining a tone of civility.

I do understand the sentiment behind the guidelines: it’s not Christmas in the Forrest household unless my dad and I get into a spirited debate about healthcare. However, there are differences between discussing politics with your family and with colleagues. Storming out of a room at a social function is unacceptable, and thus personal attacks must be avoided. If someone supports Bernie Sanders and you’re more of a John Kasich fan yourself, please avoid referring to him or her as a “math-illiterate communist.” Likewise, if you prefer Martin O’Malley (though I’m probably the only one) and your conversation partner is an avid Donald Trump supporter, try to refrain from calling him or her a “bigoted fascist.”

If you find that the candidates themselves inspire too much fervor, you can always stick to policy discussions. Debates about the ethics of drone usage and subsidies for the oil industry can remain entirely academic if the participants are so inclined.

We do not have to avoid discussing politics. Politics dominate our current news cycle, and to eschew them for the sake of something more tame not only underestimates the ability of our community to control tempers, but also sets a dangerous precedent for avoiding “controversial” topics. There’s nothing wrong with being passionate or having opinions – Lord knows I have more than a few. Avoiding personal attacks and going in with an open mind goes a long way. We can prove Emily Post wrong, and promote civic engagement at the same time.

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