When to put-up and shut-up as we approach the election - GulfToday

When to put-up and shut-up as we approach the election

Robert Talisse

Robert Talisse

Helen Coffey, The Independent

Politics, religion and money. These are the 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. 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.” 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.”

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.



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