I’ve put a lot of energy into arguing with people about our differing political views. When not arguing, I’ve spun my mental gears just thinking about these differences and getting bent out of shape internally over viewpoints I considered to be ignorant or insensitive.
I thought all the arguing might lead to some good – changed opinions or new perspectives for some of these political adversaries. When I took a hard look, I realized no one was ever really seeing anything differently.
That brother-in-law who thinks he should be able to buy an Uzi by flashing his Big Gulp discount card at 7-Eleven… I showed him 50 charts on gun violence, sent him a stack of articles big enough for him to light his fireplace all winter, begged, pleaded, wrung my nervous little hands, and… dude still has a concealed carry permit and a gun rack hanging in the back of his truck.
All that arguing didn’t change his opinion or anyone else’s, even if one or two did half heartedly agree on occasion just to shut me up. Well, that’s not entirely true. A few opinions did change but not about the issues. People who liked me just fine before I became a zealot for my cause of the week started to think I was an asshole.
All I was really doing was fracturing perfectly good relationships. That same vigilante brother-in-law also gave up about a dozen Saturdays off in a row a few years ago to help me gut my bathroom down to the studs and remodel it — all for the price of a few 12-packs of beer we split while sitting on my back porch and talking about lighter topics like fishing. Now he won’t set foot in my house.
My takeaway from this mess is that politics don’t matter unless, well, we’re politicians. It’s all just a bunch of words and talking. Blah, blah, blah. This country needs to do this or that, and guess what? None of it ever gets done because that little opinion gets lost in the sea of 10 million others.
Unless someone is in a position to directly affect policy — like they hold a political office or are running for one — their stance on taxes or healthcare or welfare or whatever only matters to the extent it shapes their voting preference. Of course we should all be informed voters, but character and how we treat other people… those things matter a whole lot more in everyday life than our position on the issues.
Here’s another example. I have a part-time job as a Strength Coach at a local college to supplement the meager income I make from owning a small gym. My political views are the polar opposite of my boss’. I’m a gun control liberal, and he’s a country music listening conservative. Either I really need the money from this gig or I’ve actually matured a bit — I haven’t decided which — but against my nature, I’ve managed to hold my tongue when an issue comes up.
This bit of self restraint has proved enlightening. What I’ve observed is that this guy with all the tattoos and rough edges and politically incorrect opinions is good to everyone who works for him and to everyone who sets foot in that weight room. Sure, he often says things I disagree with, but even more often he does things worthy of my admiration, like hiring a phenomenal staff that includes both women and ethnic minorities.
We live in turbulent political times – some of the most chaotic I can remember in my 48 years. Opinions are often radically different and emotions about them run high. If we value a friendship, we must be vigilant to think carefully before we speak. Arguing about political viewpoints almost never changes them but can certainly damage friendships in irreparable ways.
Maybe we should all think of better ways to spend our time doing things that can actually make a difference. Instead of arguing our political viewpoints, we could volunteer for a cause or organization whose mission aligns with our values.
I used to be Fundraising Director for a homeless shelter, and I’ve often railed against people who don’t share my empathy for the homeless. I also haven’t set foot in a shelter in the three years since I left my paid position, though I’m well aware that shelters are desperate for volunteers for jobs like serving meals, distributing clothing, and making basic repairs.
Maybe I’d have a bigger positive impact in my community by keeping a few of my self-righteous opinions to myself and rolling up my sleeves for some real work. Maybe we all would.
We could also take steps to better our own lives through education or personal development. We could certainly treat people well, whether we agree with their politics or not. When we treat others with respect and kindness, we start to see areas of common ground from which we can can begin building bridges of understanding and compromise.
The exact avenue of change doesn’t really matter. The point is to take more action in positive directions and spend less of our finite time and energy arguing about everything that’s wrong. We’ll be happier with our contributions to the world, and our relationships will be stronger. That’s the sort of real change and growth that makes any argument seem trivial.