We are all united in the belief that we live in a divided country. A bit ironic. The fact that the phrase “the country is divided” is repeated everywhere ad nauseum is evidence that we yearn for some common ground. But acknowledging divisions does not get us anywhere. Given the importance of the issues, we cannot afford to end our conversations with a simple “agree to disagree.” So we need to learn how to talk to each other better.
With this in mind, I wrote “A Guide for Talking to Trump Supporters.” We at the Vim also recorded four podcasts about it. Each episode extends far beyond the Guide. We discuss all manner of issues:
- Should we ignore Trump Supporters and instead work to mobilize people on the left?
- Whose duty is it to have conversations with Trump Supporters?
- Why is so much political discourse centered around ‘destroying’ or ‘eviscerating’ your ‘opponent’?
- Should we be open to changing our minds in these conversations? Or should we be locked into ‘convert the misguided’ mode?
- How do we gauge a successful conversation?
It is worth revisiting the ideas we raise in the episodes. There are a couple reasons for this. First, the one-on-one conversation is the most basic, granular, grassroots level of political action. Frequent and widespread quality conversations among those who disagree can be truly transformative. And since you are already going to be talking to people about politics, you might as well make the conversations effective. Second, in response to the avalanche of soul-crushing absurdities, many people are taking psychological refuge in apathy. We are resigning ourselves to our respective silos. This is dangerous and we must fight against it. So let’s remind ourselves of the need to have these conversations and admit to ourselves the need to improve.
The Ethics of Engagement
Who should be talking to Trump supporters (TS)? That is the crucial first question. We discuss it in ep. 1. I believe there are a number of strong arguments for engaging with TS. I outline them in the episode. Consider one here. If you do not engage with the TS in your life, it shows a certain disregard for the other people who were harmed by the vote. People have been seriously victimized by the results of the election. You have an opportunity to fight for them in your own life. Leaving your family or friends to live comfortably in their mistaken political views is to refuse to fight on behalf of the people who were wronged. And it does nothing to decrease the chances of future electoral harms. The annoyance or frustration you will feel in these conversations is nothing compared to the experiences of those victimized by the Trump administration.
There are many questions about whether people have obligations to have political conversations. We get into it on the podcast.
Guidelines and Goals
How should you approach your conversations? There is a deep desire to embarrass people, to show them up with your knowledge, or to rant at them. The desire is rooted in frustration, moral outrage, and care. Much of that is understandable and even respectable. But it indicates that you are placing yourself at the center of the conversation. That will not be productive.
Instead, place your interlocutor at the center. Concern yourself only with what will make for a productive and effective conversations. This will often require saint-like patience, but we at the Vim believe in you.
Realize that people are not going to change their whole political reorientation in a single conversation. So spend some time with the foundations. Build up the value of rational conversation. Consider attempting to establish the following norms of conversation:
- Fallibility. Are we willing to be persuaded? If not, why? We don’t like it when someone is being close-minded and ignorant while we are trying to have a reasonable conversation. Apply the golden rule to political discussion. No matter how confident we are in our views, it is still possible that we are wrong. Within a specific topic, discuss what would make both of you change your mind.
- Logic. We hold our political views because we think the arguments and evidence are on our side. So, in the discussion, we need to supply each other with our arguments and evidence. Don’t simply appeal to authorities. We all need to get better at this.
- Rational Criticism. Not all arguments are good. Not all evidence is good. We need to pause over arguments. Does the reasoning work? Are there hidden assumptions? Are the claims too broad or general? Too specific? In other words, we need to be careful. Many of our political discussions suffer from a lack of nuance. The political issues we need to discuss are complicated. If they were simple, there wouldn’t be as much debate. We must be humble. We probably do not understand all the complexities of the issue. And we aren’t all logicians. Sometimes our arguments don’t work. It happens to the best of us.
- Focus. We need to stay on point. If you ask a question or object to one of my claims, I need to respond to you. I need to be relevant, focused, and considerate. Let’s take it step by step, staying civil and respectful. It is easy to drift between subjects in order to avoid difficult questions. Remember that we are both trying to find the right answer. Obfuscating and evading does not help.
We discuss these issues and many others in ep. 2
The Socratic Method
In the final two episodes we attempt to answer the question of how we should conduct ourselves in political conversations. One approach is the Socratic Method. The Socratic Method functions through critical questioning. You get your interlocutor to think through their position, ideally in a way that uncovers their fundamental assumptions.
This method is difficult to pull off. Socrates, the master himself, usually annoyed people with his use of the method. Who likes to be shown they are wrong? So you need to be careful. The conversation should be collaborative, not confrontational. But the basic idea is simple: just ask questions. Try to learn why the TS holds their views. Don’t assume. A good round of questions lays the groundwork for better conversations in the future.
In this episode we discuss at length tips for using the Socratic Method and what you can expect.
But consider this piece, by esteemed vimmer Justin C., about the hazards of the Socratic Method. We don’t want to pester people with incessant interrogation. That won’t lead to change.
Appealing to the Constitution
Finally, try using the Constitution in your conversations. Most TS claim to love the Constitution. So you can shift the conversation away from a personality and toward a set of values. This is a useful conversational move. It is easy to defend an individual by taking a position of impregnable loyalty, especially when numerous high-profile people are doing it on television. People will say whatever they need to say, deflect, divert, and equivocate until 2020. So do not play that game. Instead, Trump supporters support Trump because of certain principles. Talk about those principles. Some of them are contained in the Constitution. So if Trump support is in conflict with those principles, you have a perfect Socratic moment of tension.
To aid in your conversations, we have put together a list of 12 forgotten Trump absurdities. It is a useful document. For instance, you can use it as a source of arguments and evidence. To be effective, you need to know your stuff. Plus, when one meditates on the whole of Trump’s political career, it becomes quite difficult to justify supporting him.
Hopefully this provides some helpful resources for your future conversations.
Now go do it.