You Think You’re Discussing Politics; You’re Not

Common wisdom among hostesses who wish to ease the flow of conversation at their parties: no politics, no religion. Why not? These topics are important to everyone, and many people have opinions on them. They should be good for much lively discussion. And that’s the problem; the discussion is too lively. More like argument.

Why Does This Happen?

You might better ask yourself the question, “Why religion and politics?” How do two such different topics get lumped together under the hostess ban?

We Think We Think, but We Don’t; We Emote

The cause is deep in human nature. My book, “Why Are People So Stupid?” deals with this in greater depth, but the basic problem all humans struggle with is that we think we are rational beings, but we more often end up acting on our emotions.

It is the same reason observers note that many people spend more time buying a washing machine than they do a house. Why? Because they buy an appliance to do the best job of a task that is important to them on a daily basis. They consider the facts and act on their decision. They buy a house because they like it.

A person buying a house has an ideal house in mind, and matches each prospective residence up to that ideal to decide rationally which one to buy. But that’s not what actually happens. One of the most basic needs in the human psyche is for a place to belong. So while the prospective buyer is looking at the house, he or she has already decided whether to buy or not, based on an emotional response. Humans, being the adaptive sorts we are, look at the list of elements, positive and negative; then we ignore the negative ones and look only at the positive ones, and think we have found a perfect fit.

So we don’t hold up the ideal house beside the real one and decide which elements match. We hold the ideal house up in front of the real one, and ignore all the elements we can’t see.

Likewise, when people consider those elements of life that have the deepest meaning to them, they think they are being logical and rational about the ideas. They can come up with all sorts of good reasons for acting the way they do. But the bottom line is that they follow their path based on what they believe. And belief is emotional, not logical.

People usually start to follow a religion at an age far before they are mature enough to choose it. It is so ingrained in their family and their life that they have trouble separating it from the real world, and very little reason to want to. In many cases politics follows the same pattern.

Even people who choose a political party to support don’t read the whole party platform and tote up the parts they agree with against the parts they don’t. They skim the platform for the things they need and ignore the rest. Political parties are well aware of this. All their demographic sampling and online research is aimed at finding out whom they should target with which elements of their platforms. And, as the expression goes, this leads to some strange bedfellows. The whole aspect of the American Religious Right supporting such a sinful and irreverent person as Donald Trump is ludicrous. But he promises to fulfill one of their deep needs, so they create an idol and put it up in front of Trump and worship it.

The Key to Trump’s Success

The vast majority of Trump’s supporters need something desperately. They are poorly educated, poorly paid people with a lot of uncertainty in their lives. They feel frightened, abandoned, and disenfranchised. They need reassurance that somebody cares about them, that someone will stand up for them. So along comes Trump; he carves himself a mask that looks like what they need, and they take one look at the mask and begin to worship it. The moment they place their belief in that mask, the man behind it can basically walk away and do whatever he likes, and they will continue to support what they believe he is.

The Blackmore Verdict

Here in British Columbia recently, a cult leader named Winston Blackmore was convicted of bigamy. He has been married about 27 times and has over 145 children (It’s hard to keep track). His main sin, however, is his penchant for marrying girls in the 15 to 17-year-old range. And anyone who believes that a girl of that age has any choice in marrying the 45-year-old bishop of her family’s church, you need to take some training in dealing with sexual abuse. Daphne Bramham in the Vancouver Sun on July 27 reports that Winston Blackmore is being hailed on social media as a hero, if not a martyr to the faith. She reminds us that since 1985 in Canada it has been criminal for anyone in a position of trust or authority to touch anyone aged 14 to 18 for sexual purposes. But this abuser has considerable support among his own people, especially among his wives and children. Why? Because they believe in him.

This makes it easier to understand why we have such a rigid separation between the church and the state (at least in Canada). Belief trumps logic every time. So arguing about religion or politics can lead to trouble. Arguing both at the same time would be really bad. That hostess would never invite us back.

Discussion Vs. Argument

When two people discuss a matter, each is listening to the other person’s ideas to find out where they match, where they don’t, and how they could be adapted so that they agree. When two people are arguing, each person is defending his beliefs, and while the other is talking, he is looking for ways to bolster his position against the attack.

So when you think you’re discussing politics (or religion) with someone, you aren’t. The moment you disagree, you’re attacking a firm belief, founded on a deep emotional need. And what happens immediately? Your opponent starts to feel afraid and angry. And the more that person realizes that his reasoning is shaky, the angrier he grows. So the better you argue, the stronger he believes. If you think you are having a discussion to bring about agreement, you are having the opposite effect

If you are truly trying to change his mind, you’re much better to look for ways in which you can agree. Somewhere in most humans there is a shred of logic, and if you can reduce your conversation partner’s anxiety and anger, you just might coax something rational into the light of day. And your hostess might invite you back another time.


Photo Credit “Who Are Trump’s Supporters?” The Atlantic, March 1, 2016

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