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How to Have a Civil Discussion about Politics at Work (or Anywhere Else)

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Xenophobic. Crooked. Misogynistic. Liar. Racist. Bigot. Con Man. Disgusting. Half his supporters are a basket full of deplorables. The only thing she’s got is the woman’s card.

The insults the presidential candidates have lobbed back and forth this election cycle seem to mark a new low in political discourse. Discussions about policy digress into ad hominem attacks more at home in a middle school cafeteria than on the national stage. From the presidential primaries to the party conventions to the first presidential debate, this year has played out like a long remake of Mean Girls. The American public has followed suit, particularly online, where jabs include slurs such as “libtard,” “complete idiot,” “Social Justice Warrior” and “fetus worshipper.” No matter which candidate someone supports, they are accused of selling their soul or promoting the very embodiment of evil—or they are just stupid.

Given such a hostile political environment, is calm, rational public discourse even possible anymore? I submit that we do not have to throw up our hands in frustration and shy away from political discussion; fruitful conversations can take place even in the most unlikely of settings—the workplace.

Recently my manager and I met one-on-one to discuss a project. I have worked for her for a little more than a year and after talking business our conversations often drift to our personal lives: school, personal goals, her son, faith, the Bible, etc. Never intending to talk about politics, I noticed a folder saved on her Web browser devoted to a local school and I asked her if her son attended that school. What started as a light conversation about why she liked this particular school morphed into a discussion about the public school system, school board politics, income disparities in the county, racial and political gerrymandering, early voting and voter ID laws, all of which are hot topics in our state.

I knew that we did not fall on the same side of every issue, but despite our differences, I was pleasantly surprised by our conversation. Rather than launching into tirades about specific politicians and attacking other people or their viewpoints, we volunteered our personal observations about local issues, discussed what we saw as problematic about current situations and conjectured possible solutions that could benefit all county residents, rather than focusing on one group in particular. We did not come to a consensus in our positions, but we both walked away from the conversation with the feeling that we understood one another better and were able to express our concerns within an atmosphere of validation. I also felt I learned things about my community I had never thought about before.

Certainly not every political conversation in the workplace will be as pleasant. I have worked in places where my ideas and opinions were met with derision and I would sooner keep my mouth shut than talk politics and be called unintelligent, uncompassionate or intolerant. Yet even in circumstances when co-workers or employers are ungracious toward their political adversaries, wise employees can still discuss the issues of the day without compromising their beliefs or stooping to mud-slinging. The following guidelines may be helpful for navigating political conversations at work during this and future election cycles:

1. Understand politics is related to issues people care about.

Whereas some people choose their affiliation with a political party based on its alignment with their philosophy of government or economics, many attach themselves to practical issues that affect their daily lives. Politics lives in the concrete, not the abstract.

Richard John Neuhaus in his class book The Naked Public Square argues that politics, culture and religion are connected and that when we enter into public dialogue, we cannot help but bring our presuppositions about what is good and right with us. We vote for and support candidates out of our lived experiences, which influence us to care about certain issues.

My boss, for example, is an African-American woman who grew up in the South and is concerned about fair treatment and representation in society, as well as promoting the well-being of historically underserved communities. Her lived experienced varies greatly from my own as a young White woman who grew up in a part of the Northeast still heavily influenced by its Anabaptist roots.

At the most basic level, people care about issues such as how they will be able to afford to pay for their children’s college, whether their job pays enough for them to be able to provide for their family, access to healthcare, improving education, keeping their families safe and securing their values and freedoms for generations to come.

Ask questions to understand the other person’s perspective, not to attack.

2. Recognize people on all places of the political spectrum have legitimate (or at the very least, perceived legitimate) concerns.

This point admittedly is very closely related to the first. Because of people’s life experiences, they may be drawn to certain issues, and throughout history, they may feel those ideas have been threatened. Some people may enjoy starting fights, protesting or trolling the Internet for fun, but the most passionate people are the ones who are concerned for their livelihood.

For example, the Black Lives Matter movement seeks fair treatment of African-Americans in employment, the criminal justice system and in public representation, arguing that they are people of value, too. In a recent article in Christianity Today, Tish Harrison Warren explained the Trump phenomenon by exploring the plight of the rural White poor, who have been left behind in an age of globalization, technological advancement and intellectual cosmopolitanism. Millennials face crippling student loans in a squeezed job market; religious conservatives fear the loss of the protection of their rights and values; and others fight for acceptance into society because of their race, sexuality, citizenship status, etc.

It would be unfair to call members of these groups brainwashed, ignorant or any other host of names just because they can identify a candidate they feel will best protect their interests, even if the candidate is otherwise unsavory.

3. Ask questions to understand the other person’s perspective, not to attack.

The best way to promote dialogue is to ask questions. It is easy to assume we know all about a person based on the candidate he or she supports. We employ heuristics to make snap judgments about people without considering what they truly believe. Asking questions can enable one to get to know his or her co-workers better and also appreciate their rationale for their decisions, especially in a political climate that is so hostile. In my conversation with my manager, I asked questions to gain a better understanding of the history of our state, which helped me to better comprehend local issues.

4. Realize people operate and make decisions out of different worldviews and narratives.

We do not all agree on various issues because we do not all think or perceive the world in the same way. Worldview and narrative influence the way we see, interpret and make sense of the world. A worldview is composed of one’s metaphysics (theory of reality), epistemology (theory of knowledge), anthropology (understanding of humankind), theology (view of God) and ethics (view of morality). Our worldview defines how we make decisions and determines what we believe and do.

This worldview makes the difference between seeing Planned Parenthood as the executioner of millions of innocent children versus seeing it as a compassionate organization that promotes women’s health and independence and saves them from poverty. We can often talk past one another when we operate from a different worldview because we speak a different language. When one questions, “How could you believe that?” he or she is asking a worldview question.

5. Seek peace and relationship building over winning an argument.

In political dialogue, the goal should not be to win an argument. We may want others to see our side and join us in our positions, but arguing and demeaning the other side will never accomplish that. The old saying goes, “The other party isn’t the enemy; they’re the opposition.” It can be easy to see the other side as an enemy to defeat, not a friend to win over. Paul calls Christians to seek to leave at peace with others (Romans 12:18; Titus 3:2) and to act with humility (Philippians 2:3-5).

Political issues can be difficult to navigate in a fallen world, and we may not have all the answers to solve the immediate problems we face today. We can learn from others’ perspectives, even if we do not agree with them. Most importantly, our goal is not to win political arguments, but to talk about issues of the heart to open lines of communication to share the gospel. Our savior is Jesus, not a political candidate, and we therefore cannot afford to let our love of or disdain for a political candidate cloud our testimony of the true King.

Conclusion

I felt blessed to be able to talk to my manager about issues that were important to her, and I felt more knowledgeable of my community and better understood how to minister to it as a result. Not every political discussion in the workplace will be fruitful, and more than a few will be discouraging or frustrating, but we can take the first step to restore levelheadedness and peace to an otherwise tumultuous political culture as a testimony to our love of the true sovereign King.

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  • current events
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Alysha Clark

Alysha works in clinical trials research in Research Triangle Park, NC. She is currently pursuing a ThM in New Testament Studies at Southeastern Seminary and enjoys exploring the convergence of theology and work in the world.

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