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Why can’t we talk about politics? A counselor’s take

It’s hard out here for a moderate. In a world of black and white, the deck seems to be stacked against the gray. As polarization becomes part of our new normal, “us versus them” language is increasingly harder to avoid. At least for those who have the rather anxiety-inducing habit of watching cable news every day, the general picture we get is of one side attacking the other, and those who take no sides incur the ire of both. As a result, when it comes to politics, those who go looking for balance in an unbalanced time seem to be few, whether Christian or not. Beyond this, things that once were just matters of opinion are intensely emotional. In the midst of all of the noise, we find that talking about political issues is difficult, endlessly divisive, and increasingly avoided. But why? And what can we do?

William B. Bowes
William B. Bowes is a Mental Health Counselor in Boston, Massachusetts. |

While I don’t pretend to know every reason, as a therapist I do know something about diagnosing problems. A big reason for the increased divide and polarization is very simple: pride. We are unwilling to do the humble work of considering the flaws or shortcomings in our perspective, and where we might be wrong. Because of this, we discount a person’s views and in our pride we are unwilling to consider the positive or reasonable aspects of what they believe. We do not want to be even slightly wrong, and this can be because of the insecurity that comes from being challenged. Everyone wants to be right. But not everyone can be. However, since we want to be right so badly and to be affirmed in our own political views, we seek out the safety of others who affirm those views and we pay less attention to contrary or challenging voices because of our discomfort with ambiguity.

In the mental health world, counselors typically try to work against this distorted style of thinking, which is often called “confirmation bias”. We do not only do it in politics; we do it in our relationships, our work, everything. I can think of many people I have counseled who chose the wrong romantic partner and pay attention only to the positive things they want to focus on and do not address the red flags. They discount or refuse to even consider those possibilities, and later, they pay for it. An inability to genuinely and humbly consider other views (even if we end up disagreeing in the end) does not make our position stronger. It actually makes it weaker, since it is not refined through challenge.

Another reason is that we moralize politics and politicize morals. This leads to the sort of profound confusion that we see today around social issues like the expansion of abortion, the redefinition of gender and the odd phenomenon of the “cancel culture”. A disagreement is no longer a disagreement; the person with whom we disagree is morally deficient and is part of the problem. This makes dialogue almost impossible and advances more of the tribalism that is increasingly ubiquitous, nauseating, and makes people not even want to try communicating rationally. This way of thinking plays perfectly into identity politics which feed an “us versus them” attitude, creating no room for middle ground. We often hear this from those who say that a vote for Biden is a wholehearted endorsement of abortion or a vote for Trump is a full agreement with his harsh words or personal (im)morality. These are false dichotomies that do not allow us to find the balance we need.

In the mental health world, this sort of labeling and jumping to conclusions is no less toxic. I’ve found often that people try to minimize the pain of a hurt inflicted on them by someone else through labeling that person or drawing a rash conclusion about them, moralizing the other person’s difference. While it may be easier, that type of thinking does not allow for the dialogue necessary to understand someone else, since each person has complex and varied reasons for believing what they believe. When we label someone, we reduce them to a position. Even if their position is wrong or not consistent with Christianity, they are a person who we should be interested in understanding.

So what do we do? The first (probably underwhelming) suggestion I have is that we turn off the television. It is not to be uninformed, but to be more careful about the mode through which we are informed. What is necessary is to develop critical thinking skills by being widely informed of events through different perspectives. This does not mean compromising essential convictions, but rather strengthening them by learning how to articulate them in light of their challenges, which is necessary for a belief to be secure. This sort of openness can begin a process of humility that culminates in conversations where, even when there is disagreement, both people feel seen, heard, understood and valued. Such a process begins with a willingness to have conversations and genuine interactions with people who are different. This involves our conversations with fellow Christians and with those who are not. It begins by speaking directly to others and by being careful with the sources of the information we take in. Being wrong is okay. Never being willing to talk about politics is not.

An additional thing we must do is learn what are the right hills to die on, so to speak. For Christians, we have to remember that we are always witnessing. As 2 Corinthians 5:20 puts it, in Christ you are an ambassador. Therefore, politics is not as separate from our faith as we may wish that it was. For example, if your bumper sticker or yard sign makes it harder for someone to understand who Jesus is, then I would argue that you should not have bumper stickers or yard signs. You do not have to change your vote, but recognize that people today legitimately misunderstand Christianity because it has too intimate an association with political ideas. We will always have different views than those around us. What is necessary is not always shifting those views but rather shifting the way we communicate them and how the other is treated in that process. Some people will always misunderstand and misinterpret and that is fine. Their misinterpretation should not change our treatment of them. If the person is what matters, we should be willing to lay down our arms.

Why does this matter? Well, whether we are talking to fellow believers are not, we are commanded in Romans 12:18 that, “as far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all”. The first part of that phrase is the most important part. Your level of peace with those who are different depends, to an extent, on you. Politics is important; the answer is not to be apathetic about these issues, but instead to remember what truly matters in the end. That is not possible for a polarized person who cannot stand contrary perspectives and believes that any give and take is compromising his or her convictions. Holding the right things in tension does not mean compromising the essentials. Oftentimes, balancing things takes wisdom, discernment and critical thinking skills. If common sense has died in our times, wisdom and critical thinking are not far behind it. We have the opportunity to revive them, but that begins with letting go of the “us versus them” thinking, letting go of issues that are not ultimately important, and being humble enough to admit you do not have the full picture. This sort of humility, which is able to learn, change, and see not only the issues but the people behind the issues, is the way forward.  

William Bowes is a Mental Health Counselor in Boston, Massachusetts and a graduate of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.

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