Discussing Politics in Polite Company: A Missed Crisitunity

Updated on December 14, 2019
Martin Yearley profile image

Martin is a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner working for NHS England. He holds a Master of Science in Social Psychology.

The centuries-old adage makes perfect sense on the surface. Discussing politics or religion in polite company is asking for trouble because we are opening ourselves up to triggering levels of offense when we are exposed to ideas that go against the grain of our morals. Not even to mention those friends or family members who dominate such conversations and seem unable to listen. We may question if there's even any point in attempting to articulate our often only partially-formulated perspectives when the most salient outcome is risking ridicule and attack from those who bizarrely relish confrontation.

Avoiding these discussions, however, would lead to much worse. Tempting though it is, we'd be robbing ourselves of character-building experiences and subjecting our society to increased political polarisation. We fear consequences of listening to each other and neglect any potential benefits, an unfortunate case of "it's easier not to" that is reflected precisely among our leaders. It was easier for Boris Johnson to respond "I've never heard such humbug in all my life" than to risk actually listening to Paula Sherriff's legitimate concerns surrounding daily death threats to MPs, for instance. Luckily for Johnson, the ensuing outrage was more palatable for voters than the anxiety of adjusting judgements of a very likeable personality to include dishonest and dangerous. His supporters clung to the safety of identity politics and stopped listening to any criticism just as Johnson had stopped listening almost immediately after Paula Sherriff opened her mouth. This is an unsustainable path for any future as democratic nations. Democracy is a conversation and cannot be had without listening. In fact, the left's inability to listen to the right has directly resulted in Donald Trump being elected as President of the USA, far-right nationalist parties gaining popularity throughout Europe and 51.9% of Britons in 2016 looking for the nearest Brexit.

We need to start listening, and in order to start listening we must first understand why we currently are not. I've detailed an explanation below as best I can understand it from my reading around social and moral psychology. I use the case of politics because this seems the most salient in our society today, but the core of the problem is much deeper than political. As I understand it currently, the deepest level is entirely individual. The most important choice we are faced with going forwards is therefore not who to vote for (or even whether to bother voting at all). Irrespective of indeed politics itself, we all have an ongoing binary choice between egoless compromise or a deepening divide. Developing the strength to choose the former on an increasingly polarised landscape is going to take conscious effort, but needs to be established as a proclivity in our personal lives before it has any chance whatsoever of taking hold on society.


Political conversations are particularly emotive when we identify personally with established group viewpoints. To group ourselves into factions based on age, gender, ethnicity and then all vote in the same direction provides power for a shared cause but lacks the necessary finesse. Thinking is no longer required in the modern day tribalism of identity politics as we outsource this task to our social circle. We have become sledgehammers of solidarity who only superficially understand the political landscape and daren't express too many hints of critical thinking lest our friends begin to see us as their enemy. The divisions in our countries have gone too far when political dialogue is too readily viewed as personal warfare, ironically saying more about the insecurities of the "offended" than the intentions of the "offender". We see this all around us, reflected both in data which suggests animosity between the left and the right is at its highest ever point, and in our households when needlessly defensive retorts from lovely old racist relatives shock and appal our snowflake siblings.

We are driven somewhat by our biology here, having evolved to avoid anxiety-provoking situations. That feeling you get when someone has seen but not replied to your message—that anxiety helped our hunter-gatherer era ancestors curb social exclusion by reflecting on what could have possibly caused such shunning. Those who then made small behaviour adjustments could continue their tribe membership and were more likely to pass on their genes as they benefitted from a continued access to food and a decreased likelihood of being murdered. Anxiety was thus an adaptive trait for survival that prevented us from wanting to get too close to not only poisonous snakes and hungry lions, but also social or an uncle who supports building expensive and impractical walls to keep the illegals out.

Our society, quite evidently, has evolved more rapidly than our biology could keep up with. These days the anxiety of an ignored message or under-liked social media post is not an immediate threat to life. Even if there's an intentional and malicious shunning, this doesn’t impact our ability to survive due to the availability of food in supermarkets and the fact that murder is now illegal. There are also countless alternative social groups and counter-cultures within reach for anybody dispossessed by mainstream social hierarchies, such that almost anybody has the capacity to flourish in some self-selected domains of value. In this way, anxiety becomes often optional and its behaviour-altering impacts shift away from character-building and social tolerance towards experience-avoiding and polarisation. Successful avoidance is then an instant reward to the nervous system, immediately driving further avoidant behaviour and rapidly resulting in the formation of avoidant habits and culture.

We have developed into a society that is now generally avoidant of political discourse and this trend is likely to continue unless we do something about it. Anxiety disorders are driven in the same way. Social phobia? Just socialise online more. Acrophobia? No need to leave the ground floor. Agoraphobia? Stay home, order to the door. Soon enough you'll be a fully-fledged hikikomori. Anxiety is already experienced disproportionally to the danger it signals, and is becoming even stronger as its newfound rarity offers less opportunities for desensitisation. Millennials are now the most anxious generation and the general consensus is that rates are continuing to rise. In The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe exactly that. Anxiety disorders are taking over our brain chemistry, but enabling them to direct our behaviour is doing a disservice to ourselves as much as it is dangerous for the future of our society.

Modern conveniences then enable us to avoid anxiety where we couldn't previously, and avoidance becomes a preference for the short-sighted, but social media platforms are also helping us to avoid anxiety in ways we might not realise, regardless of our preference. We scroll through Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and other services telling them exactly what we "like" and thereby providing all the data these companies require to cultivate personalised online experiences for us. The fact that these services want to maximise their profits means they want to maximise our screen time, and it's hardly far-fetched to make an analogy to casinos here. We are being mined for our clicks and view time in return for an endless feed of carefully calibrated content designed to skirt within the boundaries of being too dull that we leave from boredom and too fulfilling that we leave satiated. This sweet zone of maximal user engagement is full of politically partisan information which confirms our biases and demonises opponents. It seems too much to ask that simply knowing this could encourage us to take steps to reduce our own biases and judgmental perceptions, as rarely do we notice the logs in our own eyes when our neighbours have such distracting specks.

Presented only with information which algorithms have predetermined we will like or agree with, our online lives inevitably diverge into disconnected islands of familiarity. Bipartisan susceptibility to biased and fake news epidemics then increases as the same political propagandas are echoed over and over in our in-group feeds until their familiarity starts to feel like believability. The empirically demonstrated Illusory Truth Effect is at play here, whereby even information which is only ever presented as false can start to feel true once it is simply repeated enough times to instil familiarity. What's more, when people do make an effort to venture over to another of the Internet's many disconnected islands of bias, they risk being lambasted by the offended majority if they make themselves known. In fact, there doesn't seem to be much of an upside to commenting critically, even if constructively, on things we disagree with. The best case scenario might be that such comments are politely ignored whereas the more likely case scenarios include arguments, flame wars and, in extreme cases, doxing. This is the online equivalent of what Irshad Manji writes in Don't Label Me: People can be shamed into silence. The problem being that people will not accept to be silent.

Being silenced produces a reactance of increased volume, and being ignored produces a frustration of increased resolve. These factors can increase the likelihood, whether consciously or unconsciously, that someone will shrewdly include a spice of controversy into their comments in order to get noticed. Accomplished skilfully, this might be humorous and engaging. The more resentful of people, however, wield less finesse and inevitably, irrespective of intentionality, incite rage with their ham-fisted attempts at being heard. Then, due to the now-heightened emotional reactivity of the anxiety-avoidant offended masses on this topic, even those skilful in the art of satire may end up being branded micro-aggressors. It is not even necessary that the majority react in this way because the handful of most extreme reactions will be those which get upvoted, noticed, debated and normalised.

Controversy then shuts the conversation down. Given that democracy is reliant on meaningful communication between opposing sides, it cannot function if these sides cease making effort to understand each other. Unfortunately, as we've established, the reluctance to leave our ideological islands makes total sense. There is no undue anxiety when discussing politics with people who we know already agree with us, and this creates a barrier to cooperation. Why make the effort to cooperate when we can hide in our uninspected ideological islands? This is a weak person's position. It is essentially building a Trump-like wall between ourselves and outside opinion to protecting our egos from the anxiety of realising the other side actually has something to offer.

Some may even be tempted to avoid politics altogether, claiming that "all politicians are the same" and refusing to zoom in closer than this lowest possible resolution image of homogeneity. A disillusionment with the political landscape is to be expected, and in a sense a perhaps necessary recognising of our problem. Flirting with anarchy, however, is hardly a solution. Instead we would do well to realise that politicians are only human. Failures to fulfil democracy's fundamental requirement of collaborative communication in our own lives, such as when deciding where to eat as part of a large group, suggests that perhaps these problems are more human than political. Politicians are experiencing the same behaviour-guiding anxiety that we are, and it is how we as a culture respond to this anxiety, not the people in office, that we must change.

© 2019 Martin Yearley


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