Courteously and honestly, suggests former New York Times columnist Randy Cohen, who for 12 years addressed ethical quandaries in The Ethicist. He believes you should be able to talk politics with conviction and passion while still maintaining good relationships with people who have different views.
“You need to respect the person you are talking with,” he says. “You do not need to pretend to respect the ideas that he or she is expressing.”
Disagreement doesn’t have to be scary. “There’s nothing offensive about disagreement itself,” he says. “Conversation would be pretty dull if we all thought the same thing.”
The key is to never personalize disagreement.
“Remember to talk about the idea rather than the person. You can say ‘Well, I think this new tax policy is a terrible idea,’ but not ‘I think you’re a terrible person because you support this idea.’ The more you can keep the person out of it, the better.”
He also emphasizes the importance of tone.
“You can take positions quite remote from what the people you’re talking with believe, as long as it’s done in an amiable and courteous way,” Cohen says.
He suggests a spirit of mutual inquiry rather than debate, beginning with establishing common ground. “You could start with ‘We both think education is a good thing, right? So, what would happen if we tried this approach rather than that approach?’ We’re in the discussion together, examining ideas instead of trying to score points.”
Will you persuade a person whose position is opposite your own? “There’s pretty much no chance of that in the short term, and by ‘short term’ I mean a couple of years,” says Cohen.
Instead, concentrate on speaking and listening with respect. “You have no obligation to agree with ideas that you see as false, damaging, or just wrong,” he says. “Stand your ground with courtesy.”
And if your discussion partner still insists on acrimony and ad hominem attacks? “Switch to how the local team is doing or how good the food was,” says Cohen. “That may be the only option you have.”
This originally appeared as “How do I discuss the upcoming elections with family and friends in a way that respects political differences?” in the October 2018 print issue of Experience Life.