It’s easy to dehumanize those we disagree with. But who does that really serve?
Last month, my brother and I had an argument about politics. It wasn’t a very long conversation, but it devolved quickly into hurtful, personal statements and ended when he blocked me on all social media.
We haven’t spoken since, aside from a quick text I sent him wishing him a happy birthday.
I’m not proud of this argument or how it went. I’ve never been one to cut off communication with someone, let alone a family member.
But there was something about how quickly this argument became hurtful that has left me unsure of how to even start a conversation with him again. I’m not sure when we’ll talk again — especially since we live on opposite sides of the country.
But this is the problem with arguing politics: It’s not hard for us to get defensive, or for arguments to break out that quickly become personal or mean.
You don’t even have to be from different political parties. My father and I are both members of the same political party, and yet, during the primaries, we had more emotional “discussions” than my husband and his father — both from different parties — ever have when talking politics.
Politics represent our personal beliefs, morals, and ideals — meaning that we tend to see our ideology as a part of our identity.
“When political views are challenged, the brain becomes active in regions associated with personal identity, threat response, and emotions,” explains Kristi Phillips, a licensed psychologist in Minnesota. “[That] can make people feel like the core of who they are as an individual is being attacked.”
Issues and policies often become tied to the people who represent them, such as political leaders. This means we don’t always “fight” fair.
“Oftentimes, the politics gets conflated with the people who are the figureheads of those politics,” says Vaile Wright, senior director of healthcare innovation for the American Psychological Association. “So, you end up in circular arguments where nobody can ‘win’ because you’re no longer talking about the actual policies.”
In other words, we tend to not discuss ideas because we can’t see past the figureheads who proposed or implemented the policy — which means that if we don’t like the person behind the policy, we tend to have a negative association with the policy/issue as well.
“That’s where it just becomes this back-and-forth, and it turns into attacks on the other person — and people can walk away with hurt feelings, feeling misunderstood, feeling attacked,” she adds.
This is something I experienced when discussing politics with my father. Even if we have similar ideological beliefs, he personally disliked one of the politicians running for election that I liked. This made us talk “past” each other. We weren’t really being good listeners.
Partisanship has been on the rise for some time now. Since 2012, Pew Research Center research has found that Americans have had strong conflicts between political parties, and it’s only gotten more contentious in the last two presidential election years.
In addition, another study from last year found that 35 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Democrats said they’d be disappointed if their child married someone of the opposing political party — whereas in 1960, this was true only for 4 percent in either party.
In addition, things are particularly strained right now. With flashpoint issues like Black Lives Matter, the politicization of the pandemic, and an upcoming general election, we’re even more likely to stick to our “teams.”
“Politics have the real potential to create this ‘in-group,’ ‘out-group’ situation,” Wright explains. “You’re on this side or you’re on the opposite side, and there’s nowhere in between. And when we do that, when we consider them an outsider or not part of our ‘in-group,’ then it gets really easy to dehumanize people.”
“When you start to believe that they know ‘The Truth’ — the one and only truth — it becomes harder to foster that needed empathy that we have to have in order to be good listeners and take other people’s perspectives into consideration,” she says.
“We have this idea that family is infallible,” Wright says. “That we’re not supposed to fight, we’re always supposed to get along all of the time — and that’s just not reality.”
“Our families are just like anybody else you meet. You just happen to share some DNA. Otherwise, they’re just as unique as meeting a stranger on the street,” she adds.
And that means that sometimes, families will disagree. In fact, it’s normal to disagree, especially with your parents. That disagreement is just part of the changing parent-child dynamic as you grow up.
“For a really long time, the direction of learning came from the top down,” Wright explains. “Your parents are one of your primary influences on how you see the world and how you form arguments. But as you mature into adulthood, you start to question some of that and form your own thoughts and ideas around things, particularly if you’re put into some sort of critical thinking kind of position.”
That critical thinking position can be from higher education, but also from other life events and lived experiences, social media, or even the news. These kinds of situations lead you to question your beliefs and where they came from — and sometimes, you’ll form new opinions that break from the rest of your family.
“This is your natural developmental process in your 20s and even your 30s,” Wright adds.
This can be challenging for children and parents alike.
“Your child not identifying with the ideals you instilled in them could be internalized and make a parent feel like they did not do a ‘good job’ raising their child, or make them feel like a failure as a parent,” explains LeNaya Smith Crawford, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of the Kaleidoscope Family Therapy practice in Atlanta, Georgia.
We can — and should — be having these conversations with people who disagree with us, especially given how divisive our country has become.
But we need to approach these conversations with open-mindedness, empathy, and effective communication.
“If [a political debate] can be done in a respectable manner and both people can agree to disagree, then it can have healthy impacts on mental health,” Phillips says.
But if we just argue and stop having a two-way conversation, then it can cause a lot of harm to the relationship and even our mental health.
“Repeated conflict can cause parties to feel like their thoughts, ideas, and opinions are not valid. It can cause a decrease in self-esteem and ultimately affect the family dynamic,” Crawford says.
“Depression, anxiety, and self-doubt are possible impacts of arguing over ideology within the family,” she says.
Consider your goals for the conversation — and know that you’re not going to change someone
“If your goal is to change their mind, you are going to be very disappointed,” Wright says.
Partisan identity — on both sides of the aisle — makes us more likely to reject or criticize information that contradicts our beliefs, so it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to change someone’s mind, especially if the person you’re talking to considers themselves highly political.
However, “if your goal is to go in and try to have a better understanding of why they see things differently than you, then that opens up a whole area of possibility where you can ask open-ended questions, where you can really validate what they’re sharing with you, even if you don’t agree with the content,” Wright says.
This means that the conversation can be less defensive, making it less likely to veer off-course.
Start the conversation with what you agree on
“You may find that by discussing shared viewpoints, areas of disagreement will feel less intense, and your stress may decrease,” Phillips says.
Wright says one way to avoid coming off as attacking is to avoid “you” statements, such as “You just don’t get it,” because they put people on the defensive.
“That’s a lot less effective than me saying something like ‘I really feel like we’re not hearing each other right now,’” she says.
Using “I” statements will help you actually communicate in a healthier way, even when someone says something inappropriate or offensive to you.
On that note, don’t name-call either
“Name-calling is just not that effective as figuring out how to let them know that what they’re saying or doing is not appropriate or offensive to you,” Wright says.
Try to keep yourself calm when you feel like things are veering off-course
“If you find yourself quick to react in a heated conversation, it may benefit you to take a step back and remind yourself to be calm,” Phillips says.
“Try taking deep breaths when you find yourself getting worked up, or politely change the topic of conversation. Each person is responsible to control their own emotions, and being aware of them will help to lessen tension with others,” she says.
In addition, “preparing for how you might react in advance of a conversation or family get-together may increase self-awareness, and may give you more options if you want to de-escalate tension,” Phillips adds.
Actually listen to the other person
“We may disagree with someone, but instead of strongly reacting, actively listen to the other person about what is important to them,” Phillips says.
Listening can help you see where the other person is coming from, even if you don’t feel the same.
“It’s about trying to connect to the emotion that’s underlying people’s ideology,” Wright says.
For example, do they feel that way because they’re afraid? Sad? Having empathy for their emotions can help preserve the relationship.
“Setting clear boundaries is the most important thing any family can do to keep the peace while having opposing views,” Crawford says.
“Time limits on conversations, having a list of off-limit words/phrases, or finishing the conversation with acknowledging something positive about the people in the conversation are a few examples of how boundaries can be implemented,” she says.
Make time for self-reflection after an argument
“If you find that you’re in a pattern where you can never work out disagreements, then you’re setting yourself up to ultimately being possibly rejected and alone,” Wright says.
So, if you find that you’re constantly having arguments, it might help you to do some self-reflection.
Journaling can help with this, as can therapy. Both can help you spot your patterns, and maybe help you identify areas where you want to change.
Take breaks — especially right now
“It’s a really challenging time,” Wright says. “I don’t think any of us ever expected to experience something like this with this level of uncertainty. It’s really hard for everybody.”
All this uncertainty and stress is bound to make you — and everyone else — a little touchy. So, try to take breaks, both from these political conversations but also just from living in all that stress.
“While it’s really important to stay informed right now, you have to take breaks from your devices, you’ve got to take breaks from the news, and you’ve got to take breaks from social media,” Wright explains.
It’s common to “doomscroll” right now as we look for new information as a way to manage our anxiety and uncertainty about the world.
But if you do that, Wright says, “you end up just hearing these negative stories over and over and over again, and it keeps you in a state of hyperarousal.”
You can do everything right to be an effective communicator, but that doesn’t mean you’ll always be able to keep the peace. Both of you have to want peace.
“There’s no obligation for anybody to remain in a relationship where that person is being an ‘-ism’ towards you, be that racist, sexist, or whatever the case may be,” Wright says. “There’s no reason anybody should ever have to stay in that kind of relationship.”
If the relationship is so toxic that it’s beginning to interfere with your mental health, you don’t need to stay in the relationship.
“If the relationship is in any way beginning to interfere with your functioning in a significant way, like you are physically feeling sick, you are unable to sleep or eat, you stopped feeling like you can work or go to school, or you’re withdrawing from other people — then those are red flags that this is somebody that is not serving you in your life,” Wright explains.
Of course, taking a break from someone doesn’t have to be permanent or final.
“The thing to remember is that with relationships, part of their role is to come and go,” she continues.
“If we think back in our life, there’s been a lot of people that we’ve known that we don’t know anymore,” Wright adds. “There’s also times when people come back into our lives when they’re in a better spot.”
If you do take a break, remember it’s OK to grieve that relationship
Let yourself feel your feelings and don’t judge yourself.
“Even if someone was truly toxic and they’re gone, they were not an ‘all bad’ person,” Wright says. “Be really gentle with yourself, and don’t judge yourself for your feelings.”
It’s important to remember that politics are inherently personal, and when someone criticizes your beliefs, it can feel like they’re criticizing you and your entire identity, making these conversations inherently emotional.
While it’s worth hearing different points of view than our own — that makes us all more informed — it’s also important to remember that we have to approach these conversations with empathy and understanding.
And if that can’t be done by both people, maybe it’s best for both of you to not talk politics — or in the worst case — not have a relationship.