Why is politics bad for your relationships?

One of the surest ways to start a conflict with someone is to start talking about politics with them. Taxation, state secrecy, police powers, welfare, immigration, traffic laws, healthcare, voting rights, industry regulations, minimum wage, tariffs, separation of Church and state, etc… these are all wonderful topics that can ruin a friendship in just one night. Yet why do political conversations seem to raise the stakes so high that even good friends can become bitter rivals? What is it about politics that makes it only a safe topic to talk about if two people share exactly the same political views as each other?

Well, I could do a well researched piece into this and talk about the neuroscience, but I’m eager to simply finish my blog entry to watch some TV so instead, I’m going to write about something I remember hearing on the History of England Podcast where the people were arguing with the kings repeatedly over the issue of the laws always changing. This struck me as odd because I’ve always lived in an era when the laws seem to be changing all the time. It never occurred to me that there might have been a time, indeed centuries, where the laws hardly changed at all, and that these state of affairs was seen as the ideal.

Why would anyone want laws to never change? My first thought was that if the laws are fixed, then people will eventually just accept them, live with them, and get on with their lives. But if the laws are constantly changing, or increasing then people won’t accept them, they will argue over them, and constantly fight about them because they know it isn’t futile to fight to change the laws because the laws are always changing. So maybe that’s all it was, a plea for the laws never to change again so people could just accept things the way they are and civil society could return to peace and quiet again.

However, I don’t think this answers the question. Why do people get so personally invested in politics that they’d risk burning bridges with friends and family over? Generally, when people get this worked up it is because of two reasons:

The first reason is that they identify personally with a political cause. It is their personal identity at stake, their honour, their self-respect, their reputation on the line. So they will treat anyone who disagrees with them as enemies testing their faith and resolve to do the right thing. So they can’t treat it as merely a discussion about the weather, marriage, or poverty but a crusade against climate change deniers, bigots, and greedy landlords who wish to destroy the world! I can see this with some people; they have a loyalty to a cause and right or wrong they’re going to stay loyal to their side, whatever the costs.

This makes for very uncomfortable conversations because you can’t ever treat a conversation on this topic as a thought experiment, an opportunity to learn both sides of the argument, or just a fun subject to banter about. This is the problem of tribalism, where only other people who share the same political viewpoints can actually get along with each other. However, this isn’t the same as when two football fans barrack for rival teams. That’s a tribal situation, but it typically doesn’t lead to the kind of conflicts one has with political conflicts.

Which brings me to the second reason: Politics is organised violence. A new law, a new tax, a new regulation, etc… are all threats, threats to take your money away or force you to do or say things you don’t want to do, or don’t believe to be true. Therefore, if someone disagrees with you on political issue, that carries with it an implicit threat: I want to vote to take your income away from you, I want to vote to throw you into a cage if you do this thing I don’t like, I want to ruin your career when you say the wrong thing. This is actually what I believe to be a more credible answer to the original question.

If you want to raise my taxes, the implication is that you want to steal my money. If you want to reduce taxes, the implication is that you want welfare dependent people to starve. If you want to restrict my speech, the implication is that you want to hurt me if I don’t do as you tell me. Politics, it has been said, is just war by other means.

I think it is the real reason why politics generates such intense resentments between people, and I sincerely think if we want to get along with other people, we need to have some empathy for the people who disagree with us politically. There is no such thing as a perfect political solution. Every law and policy has winners and losers, and so it has people who will feel threatened. I find myself more sympathetic with those English folk of old times who just wanted the laws to stop changing. Simply because when the law changes as often as the weather, the law is no longer taken seriously anymore by anyone and that increases the risk that those threats of violence become actual violence in an act of desperation to get people to obey the law again.

So the next time a political conversation comes up for you, and you feel yourself getting hot underneath the collar… stop. Take a deep breath, remind yourself that other people feel just as threatened by your political beliefs as you do of theirs. Instead, try to take a light hearted approach to the conversation, see it merely as a game of ideas, and not a contest of wills. It really isn’t worth ruining a relationship over being dogmatic in political discussions. Instead, let everyone be heard, and no one be silenced or mocked, and last and most importantly: look at the people around you, these are your companions in your life, please treat them like treasures, because they’re more important than anything else in life, yourself included.

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