A guide to improving our conversations about politics
Last spring, Alden Swiesz wrote an MOR article entitled “A Different Perspective,” which detailed his experiences as a conservative student in the majority-leftist Oyster River School District, and discussed the isolation and discomfort he felt from having different political views than many of his peers. As a member of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee, event coordinator for the ORHS Young Democrats, and generally politically active liberal student, I heard a lot about this article when it was published. Friends, family members, and participants in my various clubs all forwarded this article to me and asked for my position on it. My response shocked them: I completely agreed with what Sweisz was saying.
In my experiences throughout middle and high school, almost every political conversation I’ve observed has turned into a debate. This is understandable; between our country’s polarization, our culture’s tendency to tie opinions and identity into one, and the difficult topics being discussed, it’s easy to become fiery and turn a friendly talk into a shouting match. I’ll admit, I’ve absolutely done the same thing and lost my temper at peers for saying one too many things I disagreed with. However, shouting insults is not the method to choose when attempting to convince someone to agree with you. As politically-minded students, we need to use more compassion when talking to classmates of different views than our own.
Let me be clear, I’m not saying that we should pretend to agree with everything somebody says, or that we need to excuse bigotry and offensive remarks. Compassion does not mean concession. I’m saying that we need to prioritize the opposing party’s humanity above their political affiliations. Too often, students will hear one buzzword that sets them off into a slew of insults and causes them to refuse to listen to anything the other person has to say, which completely eradicates the possibility of having a productive discussion.
Not only does this prevent our conversations from being helpful, but it also takes a toll on students who hold different views than the majority of their classmates. In Sweisz’s article, he details hiding his Republican beliefs and pretending to be a Democrat in his citizenship education class, an experience repeated by many of the other conservatives he interviewed. Students should never be made to feel ashamed of their political opinions in social or classroom settings. We need to make sure that all students in Oyster River feel safe expressing themselves in order to truly consider our school a welcoming community. Additionally, ensuring that every student is comfortable sharing their opinions will strengthen the quality of our political discussions because it will allow people to express their genuine thoughts rather than what they feel pressured or expected to say.
So, how do we improve our discussions about politics? Award-winning journalist Celeste Headlee says it best in her TED Talk “Ten Ways to Have a Better Conversation”: “You need to enter every conversation assuming that you have something to learn.” We can’t go into a discussion with someone under the assumption they are a mindless echo of the things they’ve heard, who after hearing our point of view will suddenly see the light and agree with us wholeheartedly. People have reasons behind every belief they hold, and we can only change those beliefs if we first connect with the reasonings behind them.
Right-leaning student Zach Serrano (‘22) adds to this point. “You just have to understand that everybody is coming from different lifestyles. Once the right and left can see that, ‘Hey, these people are coming from somewhere else,’ and once you understand where they’re coming from and why they think the way they do, then you’ll be able to sympathize with their position more and respect what they’re saying more. After that, you’ll be able to actually find better solutions. Once you understand them, you can understand the problem at a different level.”
Discussing controversial topics and remembering to bring compassion to the forefront takes a great deal of effort and practice. When somebody is speaking on a topic and you are against everything they’re saying, it can be hard to remain open-minded. One strategy that helps keep open-mindedness as the focus is to set guidelines, either unspoken for yourself or spoken between participants in a conversation.
For example, sometimes I’ll find myself talking to somebody I disagree with and will consciously decide not to use any demeaning terms, or I’ll deliberately separate my past experiences from the present moment so I can have as much empathy for the other person as possible. I find that every time I do this, I’m left feeling more well-educated on the subject than I was before. Other times, a conversation will get heated and I’ll say to whomever I’m speaking with that it is not okay to use a certain phrase, and that we can only continue the conversation if they don’t use it again. The key to this strategy is following through; it only works if I don’t use the degrading words or actually walk away when the person uses the phrase I’ve identified as off-limits. It’s also important to embrace the other person’s boundaries: showing respect for somebody’s wishes will make them much more likely to hear out your point.
Elsie Paxton (‘23) considers herself a progressive Democrat and says that another use for these guidelines is that they identify “what’s considered an opinion and what’s considered a human right.” She says that these are needed in conversations about politics, especially where recent political divides have blurred the lines between the two. It’s okay to disagree about things like healthcare and how to address certain social issues, but it’s another thing altogether to be homophobic or racist. If a specification between the two isn’t made, it allows hate-speech to be written off as acceptable, and lets the person making the hateful statements continue on as though those statements are okay.
Paxton also finds that being knowledgeable about a subject allows her to discuss it better. “I haven’t always been kind, I haven’t always understood what other people are talking about, and that’s when I have to take a step back and really do research. I have very strong political views, and I do a lot of research to develop those, and there are a lot of times where I haven’t researched as much what other people are thinking or talking about.” Learning more is always a good idea, but especially on controversial topics like politics, where the issues are so multifaceted that having a thorough understanding of them is crucial to a discussion. Knowing a lot about a given topic allows for a more objective and fact-based conversation, rather than one driven solely by emotions.
Putting all of this effort and self-control into our discussions is challenging, but essential to building a better school and world environment. Serrano gives an example of a time when his viewpoints should have been given this type of consideration, but weren’t. On his eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C., Serrano bought a Make America Great Again hat, and in hindsight he is aware of how that was negatively interpreted by many of his peers. When one classmate brought up their issues with his hat, Serrano started having a peaceful conversation with them about it. However, another classmate was immediately dismissive of Serrano’s point of view, and pulled the person he was speaking with away, declaring, “Stay away from the Trump supporter!”
Serrano says that this moment “really hurt me, personally. I felt like I was having such a productive conversation with this kid, and although we were disagreeing on just about everything, we were reaching this mutual understanding. What that student did just completely pulled the conversation away from any productivity that we had.” Had this student not dragged their friend away, it is likely that either Serrano or the person he was speaking with would have changed their viewpoints, or at least walked away from the conversation with an expanded understanding of each other. Instead, they were left in the same state of political polarization as they had begun, which just goes to show how vital open-mindedness in tough conversations is to making progress.
Finally, I want to emphasize that this applies to everyone. If not all political conversations have the goal of mutual understanding, then it will be impossible to achieve. Instead, all that will happen is more conflict, with no resolution and so many concessions from one side that resentment is heightened instead of removed. However, if all of us together decide to lead our politics with compassion, we can improve our school culture for everybody.