I know very few people that enjoy discussing politics and controversial social issues. Most people, including me, tend to shy away from these topics and stick to lighter, more enjoyable, less divisive conversations. In my experience, the people who actively bring up politics and divisive issues are the ones who have strong opinions backed by very little research (not always, but usually).
I have one friend I typically discuss social issues with. She’s a sociology major, so she often talks about current events in her classes, and we generally have similar opinions. Even if we disagree, we know how to do it respectfully, and we both admit when we have and haven’t done research on a topic. Last time we met for coffee, we intended to stay away from politics, but ended up discussing them and other controversial issues almost the entire time we were together. It was intellectually refreshing. And then we wondered why people don’t do this more often.
Of course, there is the obvious reason. Politics and social issues are divisive. I’ve mentioned before that talking about politics means talking about everyone’s baggage as well. It’s uncomfortable and annoying, and sometimes not worth the arguments that will inevitably ensue.
But why do these things hold so much passion for us? One reason is that our political beliefs are closely related to how we view ourselves — our self-identity. I read an article the other day about what parts of our brains light up when we discuss politics. I couldn’t find the original article, but I did find this (older) one that got similar results to the one I read. In the study, scientists monitored subjects’ brains while they evaluated “information that threatened their preferred candidate” just before the 2004 presidential election (I told you it was an old article). Here’s what they found:
“We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.” [emphasis mine]
Discussing politics isn’t the same as discussing what color to paint the walls. Attacking someone’s political beliefs is more like insulting their kid. The parent isn’t going to think rationally about that (at least at first); they’re going to be angry. How dare someone say that about their kid, who they have a strong emotional connection with? How can they believe x, when clearly y is true? It’s hard to separate reason from that innate emotional response, and it’s much the same for politics.
I think another reason it’s hard to discuss these things is because it requires true self-examination. It’s hard work. First, we must inform ourselves about what’s really going on. Then, we have to compare our moral values against what’s happening in the world, and then we have to pick a stance, and then we have to defend it. It’s difficult. It’s time-consuming. In my experience, I’ve never just known what my opinion is on a hot button issue. I have to research. I have to discuss. I have to mull it over. And then I sometimes end up changing my mind. It’s introspective, and introspection is hard, because it requires us to really know ourselves. And sometimes, we don’t like what we find.
Other times, we think we do know ourselves. We have opinions and we stick to them. But we still avoid discussing hot topics because what if someone has a better argument? What then? If my views are disproved, am I really who I think I am? Good counter-arguments can dismantle us, and our sense of self-identity, completely.
But as uncomfortable as it is, these things can’t be avoided. If we avoid learning and trying to form opinions, we will get used, or ignored. We’ll be seen as ignorant or outdated. Our usefulness to society declines. My friend brought up this specific situation: over the past two summers, she has worked at a children’s Christian sleep-away camp. It’s similar to the quintessential camp experience: horseback riding, rock wall climbing, and overnight camping trips. But the staff faces big issues. Last summer, they received call from a mother wondering what the camp’s policy was for transgender children.
Transgenderism and gender dysmorphia is something that Christians typically avoid. It’s incredibly difficult to understand, especially within the context of Christianity, and on top of that it has to do with sex, which is often a taboo topic in Christian circles. But if the camp staff hadn’t discussed it, they would have come across as willfully ignorant to that mom. And they might have missed the chance to minister to a group of children that needs love the most.
Politics and issues like this aren’t fun. We live in a messed-up world that often just looks bleak. But the only way to affect it is to know what’s happening, and know how we feel about it, so that we can do something to enact change. They say nothing good in life is easy, and in this, it’s more than true.