Illustration by Elijah Greiner (C’22).
By Reece Jamison
“Everyone, CALM DOWN!” Of course, this is what typical political conversations with anyone can devolve into. A general mess of incomplete opinions, a falling out of baggage that never should have seen the light of day, and everyone left with a dire need for a cold glass of water to help ease the strain that was just placed upon their vocal chords.
What I will attempt to do for you is help ease the fear of having a dialogue with those most dear to us about issues which concern all of us: in other words, having a political dialogue with relatives at Thanksgiving.
As is good practice for life in general, one must carry with the demeanor of classic philosophers when engaging in arguments. If you are not acquainted with the writings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Plato, it is no matter; I will relay a sparknoted version to you (heavily compressed and far from professional, mind you).
The importance of writings by Seneca and Marcus Aurelius is that they were the foundations for a school of thought called Stoicism. What Stoicism teaches is that life is full of terrible and unfortunate events that can bring us down to the depths of our soul, BUT the central crux of Stoic thought is that we will get through it. Life shall move on regardless.
It is important to engage the thoughts of the worst case scenario, for from those points, there is nowhere to go but forward. It is a healthy exercise in pensive thought without the dread of potentially experiencing those worst-case scenarios empty-handed, which as the Stoics argue will lead to anger. It is by reconciling our knowledge of the tragedies of life that we are better able to take grasp of our own destiny.
By now, everyone has heard at least in passing or in some random intellectual paper of the Socratic method of argument. What Plato suggests is that his method of dialectical discussion can bring about some form of reconciliation. To achieve this desired effect, one must engage with another over a certain topic in question.
When in the midst of conversation, it is essential that the one who is speaking is questioned further about their beliefs. Through a stumbling of words and relaying of ideas, the one speaking will have contradicted themselves at one point or another, and from there, the two can create a solution that better incorporates ideas from both sides of the argument.
Now, out of the brambles of classical philosophy and into the practical application of these ideas and why it matters. When speaking to one’s relatives, it is important to understand that although you may share a lineage of familial genealogy or perhaps some other perfectly acceptable form of relation, they do not live the same lives as you. They may in fact have a wealth of knowledge of activities, sci-fi novels, civil war history, classical music, or Fortnite tactics that you yourself have not endeavored to explore.
That is perfectly fine! With that in mind, understand that not everything that is said between the two of you is completely informed. It could be fragmented information that one finds pertinent to the argument and the only piece of information they have to offer. Stray away from this type of argument.
Instead, engage in the spirit of the Stoics and come to terms with your lack of understanding, and be sincere in acknowledging it. Just because you attend a liberal arts school in no way makes you an expert in neo-liberal thought, capitalism, Shakespearean tragedy, or the biology of the natural world.
What you have is an appreciation for the wealth of knowledge that the world has to offer (hopefully), and you will use that to your advantage. In acknowledging your faults, avoid being heavy handed and dramatic, you should be able to chip away at another individual’s steadfastness, and invite a sort of empathy for stupidity, from which perhaps knowledge and understanding can arise.
A use for political debate that has emerged over the centuries (and most certainly the most dangerous) is that of winning the argument. Political discussion with your relatives is not an exercise for the debate squad! Politics is a field of knowledge regarding issues that affect us all such as healthcare, voting, public sanitation, trade, geo-political happenings, nuclear fusion… dear God, what have I gotten myself into?
Anyway, who are you to decide the fate of millions of people? Can you even imagine what 300 million dollar bills looks like? I thought not. There are macro and micro happenings that no one person is an absolute expert on, this is where the Socratic method comes into play.
Once the two parties have opened up to having the capacity for feeling empathy, it has become time to listen to one another. Allow each other to chase down the rabbit holes of their minds, politely, by giving them time to make a fool of themselves, and respectfully offering a potential perspective once the other party has talked themselves into a corner and from which they are in need of desperate help. Do not speak out of turn. Do not let your emotions cloud you from the potential you have of engaging in enlightening discussion.
Politics are not some sort of useless form of rhetoric that our lousy politicians have perpetuated since 1776. These issues are a part of our being, how we function and practice our lives, safely and productively in order to produce a functioning society for all. We are all in the cave, enthralled by the moving pictures on the wall. Perhaps it is time that we grasp each other by the hand and make our way out.