Column: Is meaningful political discourse still possible?

Following the most divisive presidential election in recent memory, many of us have fallen into a permanent “winter break” mode. That is, no matter how strongly we hold our political views, we are holding our tongues even more strongly so as to not offend family and friends who may not agree, or to generally avoid often heated confrontation stemming from the still-raw political wounds of the past year.

We sit silent at holiday dinner tables, listening to aunts and uncles bash Clinton or Trump, Cooper or McCrory, only to return to the comfort of ideologically homogenous college campuses and complain about the ignorance of those we chose not to engage in political dialogue.

But if we truly want to repair the ripped fabric of American politics, our silence may as well be a pair of shears. Research on political behavior suggests that the silence of those of the minority opinion results in the strengthening of the majority view in those that already hold it, but the opposite is also true. Exposure to the explanations of viewpoints that are opposite our own allow us to better understand the rational used by our opponents, and, in turn, make us more open to political compromise.

According to work by Diana Mutz, a preeminent scholar of political communication at the University of Pennsylvania, political dialogue with those we are most familiar with has the most impact on our openness to political compromise. Talking to friends, family and neighbors is the best way we can close the widening gap of political polarization, an increasing trend evidenced by the number of people considering themselves to be extremely ideological more than doubling over the last two decades.

But problems exist even before we begin to attempt to increase our political engagement. Studies in political science suggest that self-segregation into like-minded communities is not a problem unique to college campuses. Increasingly, people live in neighborhoods that are home to more people who are ideologically similar. People are also marrying spouses of the same partisan persuasion at higher rates.

These tendencies complicate our attempts at creating positive political dialogue, because they do not allow for exposure to heterogeneous opinion, but rather create echo chambers which serve to isolate and further polarize partisans.

Further, our arenas of communication exist in spaces which are least conducive to constructive and persuasive political discussion.

Social media, which the average person spends almost two hours on per day, is notably ill-suited for promoting constructive political dialogue. Internet dialogue lacks the personal connection that face-to-face communication affords — something that allows people to quickly scroll through a post or mute a video if they don't agree with it.

But compare the frequency of the use of social media to the results of a recent Pew Research Centerpoll which asked how often people discuss politics with those around them. Over half of respondents said they talked about politics once a week or less often.

Often, when we are advised to “speak up,” the image evoked is of picket signs and bullhorns flooding the common spaces of our universities, of marches and protests.

The evidence sends mixed signals on the effectiveness of this type of political communication — some recent work suggests that protests, for example, can actually lead to opinion shifts in the opposite direction — but the signal is sent clearly through the noise with regard to interpersonal communication.

If you are truly opposed to the incoming presidential administration, or if you support it and genuinely wish to convert your opponents, speaking clearly and kindly, rather than shouting loudly from your comfortably blue or red corner is the best method.

To progress toward compromise and political healing, we must actively desegregate ourselves politically, open ourselves to relationships with those we consider to be opponents and spend more time in spaces that encourage genuine political engagement with those we disagree with.

And when we engage, our goal must not only be to convince, but to be open to being convinced ourselves. Just as we have established political preferences based on our experience of the world, so too have others and their experiences are equally legitimate.

In the words of the philosopher Socrates, “Nature has given us two ears, two eyes, and but one tongue — to the end that we should hear and see more than we speak.”

Thanks for reading.

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