The politics of talking about politics: When to put-up and shut-up as we approach the general election

Are Sunak and Starmer appropriate dinner party chat?  (Sky News)
Are Sunak and Starmer appropriate dinner party chat? (Sky News)

Politics, sex, religion and money.

These are the four pillars to avoid discussing in public at all costs, according to ancient wisdom. Or, at least, according to the wisdom of a 1998 Chicago Tribune article headlined “A Few Topics to Avoid in Social Conversation”.

The idea was that these potentially contentious topics could make people uncomfortable and were therefore impolite to bring up. Oh, how times have changed – I’ve rarely been at a dinner party where at least one of them didn’t make an appearance (particularly sex, if wine and women are involved). Now, as the country gears up for a 4 July snap general election – or Genny Lex, if that’s more your vibe – there’s more reason than ever for the “P” word to crop up. Get ready: politics has officially entered the chat.

But given the oft-heated nature of political debate, should we be swerving it in certain settings – like the workplace? Or online? With difficult family members? How about on first dates?

At work, you’re legally allowed to express your political opinions (within reason); under the Human Rights Act 1998, “everyone has the right to freedom of expression,” says David Rice, an HR expert at People Managing People. “However, this right is also subject to other prescribed laws that restrict certain conduct. In simple terms, you can express your political opinion at work, but there are some circumstances when you may not be able to do so.”

These circumstances include when abusive language is used and if the discussion is deemed “discriminatory”. Plus, beware of posting political opinions online that are “inconsistent” with your employer’s values. Any of these could damage your career or even get you fired, warns Rice: “Ultimately, if you are going to share your political views at work, or even online on your personal social media channels, it’s a good idea to be aware of the rights your employer has before doing so.”

He adds: “Political views can get people very riled up, so even if you didn’t mean to cause any harm initially, a discussion could end up getting very heated and, in some cases, violent, which is very dangerous territory to be in as an employee. If you’re concerned that your views might cause a rift with colleagues, it’s probably best to keep your views to yourself.”

Political debate can often get heated (Getty)
Political debate can often get heated (Getty)

It’s not to say you always need to hold your tongue at work – but consider who you’re chatting with, and why. “I think that it’s fully appropriate to avoid discussing politics in certain contexts,” says Robert Talisse, a professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University and the co-author of Political Argument in a Polarized Age. “Our lives are structured around the various roles we play. Although citizenship is a full-time job, in some cases, the guy going to work just wants to be a co-worker.”

He warns against the blanket tendency to treat every interaction as an opportunity to engage in political debate, particularly in the run-up to an election. “When politics is all we do together as a society, we get really bad at it – we start to determine all relationships through allyships or enmity,” argues Talisse. “In our roles as citizens, it’s important to preserve space in our lives to see people at their best, in contexts that are not tied to their politics.”

Bo Seo, a two-time world debating champion and author of the book The Art of Disagreeing Well, agrees that knowing when to put-up and when to shut-up is a fundamental skill. “It’s a mark of cleverness to be able to out-argue opposition, but a mark of wisdom to know which arguments to engage in and which to let go,” he tells me. Shouting at Brian from accounting in the office kitchen because he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with you on immigration may just be one of those times when it’s prudent to walk away.

Our motivation for entering into a disagreement is also something we should be questioning. Is it because we want to better understand our colleague and their point of view? Or is it simply to outmanoeuvre them and “win” the argument? Social media often encourages us to do the latter, producing the “shouting into the void” style of debate that gets us nowhere. While acknowledging that the internet has great democratic potential, Talisse argues that “we’re not putting ideas out into the dialectical space for others to engage with… A lot of what presents itself as political debate is really a kind of mugging for a preselected audience. As in, I’m ostensibly arguing with you, but I’m really playing to the people who are already on my side.”

If you’re concerned that your views might cause a rift with colleagues, it’s probably best to keep your views to yourself

David Rice, People Managing People

It creates a distortion of political disagreement – a system in which the entire aim is to score points, “own” the other side and win the favour of online onlookers, rather than learn anything. Engaging in online political debate as we currently practice it “is almost hopeless,” laments Talisse. “I think it should be avoided at almost all costs.”

Elsewhere, we’re in danger of this combative approach infiltrating the thorny world of political discussion with loved ones. Generational divides frequently lead to radically different ideologies between family members – everyone’s got that one racist uncle, right? – but they’re the people it’s hardest to avoid talking about the big issues with.

“Recently, I’ve been seeing the dynamics of public debate filtering into private conversations and invading intimate spaces,” observes Seo. “For example, at a big family dinner, someone will pull out a line from Twitter – it’s a particular way of engaging, a quick, sharp riposte.” It’s as if you’re not just talking to your uncle about his differing political views, but making an example of him for some imaginary crowd. While this playing to the gallery might make sense on social media – to garner more likes, followers, engagement – it’s a poisonous dynamic to be importing into the private sphere. “It’s nonsensical – it doesn’t make sense to ‘cancel’ one’s aunt, she’s still going to be there!” laughs Seo.

Does that mean we should swerve making assessments of Sunak and Starmer over appetisers? Not necessarily, but we need to be less careless and more purposeful and attentive when talking with those we’re closest to, and resist the urge to take things too personally. Seo recommends laying down the basic conditions for good disagreement before wading in with family members and friends. “Start every disagreement with some amount of agreement,” he says, “like how we’re going to have the conversation – we’re going to have an equal amount of time to speak, or take it in turns so we don’t interrupt each other – and what it is we’re actually going to be disagreeing about.”

The Genny Lex is coming on 4 July (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
The Genny Lex is coming on 4 July (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Seo stresses the need to practice empathy, describing the techniques of top competitive debaters: once they’ve prepared their own arguments, they’ll put themselves in the opposing team’s place, considering what points they would make, or how they would go about picking holes in the original stance. “That decentring can shake things up and crack open a little gap through which empathy might be able to emerge,” says Seo. “Stepping into the other person’s shoes is very useful.”

Reframing arguments as being with someone’s opinions, not them as a person, is another key step in learning to disagree well. “When engaging in political debates with family, friends and coworkers, remember that it’s possible to condemn political ideas without condemning or demeaning the person who holds them,” points out Talisse. “It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that people can have political ideas that are misguided and unjustifiable, but that doesn’t render the person who holds those views deplorable. Good people can have bad ideas and be wrong.”

Bear in mind that disagreement is just one possible response if we have differing opinions. We could, for example, try just listening – “you say your bit, I say mine, and we agree to listen but not comment on each other’s beliefs,” says Seo. “We’re not trying to change each other’s minds necessarily, just to hear each other out.” He admits that, as a seasoned debater, there’s a temptation to want to show off and “win”. “But when you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I realised that if I ever wanted to hold onto a relationship, I had to recognise when it was time to put those tools away.”

Speaking of relationships, where does political discourse factor in when it comes to the already complex world of romance? It all depends on what’s important to you and what you’re looking for, according to Vicki Pavitt, a love, dating and relationship coach. For some people, having different political views “can be an absolute deal breaker, but for others, diverse views can lead to enriching and thought-provoking conversation. If talking about politics is a big part of who you are, then don’t hide this on dates, but also be mindful that your date may have different viewpoints to you.” Learning about someone’s politics can give you a sense of their values and what’s important to them, so it can actually be a great way to discern compatibility – “but approach these conversations mindfully and resist the urge to debate,” she adds.

When we’re used to talking about politics only with people who agree with us, our ideas get sloppy

Robert Talisse

Pavitt urges curiosity and a desire to understand your prospective partner’s perspective rather than immediately pointing out all the reasons why they’re wrong. “Ask open-ended questions and listen without interrupting,” she advises. “This shows respect and can help you to learn more about who they are, what they believe in and what they value in life. Know when to agree to disagree to prevent things from escalating into an argument – it’s also completely fine to move the conversation on when it’s no longer productive.”

The main takeaway, then, appears to be that talking politics is acceptable (if not always advisable) in most contexts – but only when done thoughtfully, sensitively and with respect. If approached in the right way, even disagreements can be a hugely positive thing. The process of trying out ideas, of seeing how they interact with opposing views, has the “really important effect of unsettling some of our assumptions,” says Seo, theorising that, if we’ve had a discussion of quality with someone who holds a different ideological view, it can be the basis for reflection that “can really change people’s minds”.

Even if our minds aren’t changed, they can be honed; part of why disagreement is important is because a well-conducted argument helps us better understand our own political ideas and positions, according to Talisse. “When we’re used to talking about politics only with people who agree with us, our ideas tend to get sloppy, overstated, imprecise. Opposition helps you understand the contents of your own mind.”

“Disagreeing well can be the path to a bigger life,” is how Seo puts it. “It’s not going to be simpler or easier, but it will be more full.” And if that’s not a reason to get out there and chat about the Genny Lex with reckless abandon, I don’t know what is.