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Friends And Family Across the Divide- BCB #2
"We’re on everybody’s side, give or take"
Welcome to our second issue, in which we tackle the personal side of political division. Plus shifts in mainstream editorial policy, a proposal for conflict-reducing algorithms, academics who don’t want to talk about free speech, and a data-driven look at political extremity.
“If you don't believe X, unfollow me now.”
How many friends or family members have you “lost” to politics in the last few years? You might be feeling the absence of family news on your social media feed, or mourning a friend who seems to fallen down a rabbit hole of crazy. Fully 16% of Americans ended a relationship after the 2016 election, and many of us are now at odds with someone close. Some call it remaining principled and showing zero tolerance for hate. Others just call it zero tolerance.
You’re not imagining that just about everything has become has become a touchy subject — it’s sadly normal for an expanding conflict to reach into every aspect of society. We are rapidly running out of common ground on which to stand as professional sports uniforms, theme parks, children’s clothing, cable providers have all become embroiled in political arguments. If political differences can tear apart a marriage, how are we supposed to hold on to high school classmates we haven’t talked to in a decade?
Fortunately, a variety of strategies have been developed for difficult political conversations (there is even a Difficult Conversations Lab at Columbia University). Sometimes this is as simple as save it and wait: take a minute to cool down before hitting send. That’s hard to do when our entire moral system feels insulted. Yet we can do a lot more, so this week’s research is all about better approaches to tense personal conversations. But first, the news.
News News News
Gannett Newspapers has decided to dial back on daily opinion columns, refocusing on “community dialogue,” with one exec noting that “readers do not want to be lectured at or told what to think.” We are always thrilled to see more “talking with” than “talking at,” but apparently their opinion content was poorly read anyway. Social media always gets there first, and news readers have long been confused about the difference between opinion and news content. CNN is also eyeing a change in tone. The new leaders of the original all-news network say it’s backing off on constant “Breaking News” banners–omnipresent since 9/11– and are also talking about refocusing from opinion back to hard news. Have we gone full cycle yet?
In every conflict it’s always the other guy who is being unreasonable, and both Red and Blue have invoked “asymmetric polarization” as a fancy way of saying “they started it.” Is it possible to be objective here? This analysis takes a data-driven approach to this most loaded of disputes, concluding that the answer depends on how you phrase the question. Since 1994, Blue has moved further left on policy positions than Red has moved right, while Red has become more ideologically pure and less tolerating of dissent. This is this issue's Most Conflicted Selection because right now some of you are calling both-sides bull, saying “obviously they are more extreme because they did X.” And yes, they did do that, but data-driven measures of extremism end up depending a lot on what you count.
Could social media algorithms foster understanding instead of division? “Bridging-based ranking” would go beyond simply trying to expose us to more diverse viewpoints by trying to find those items which are received positively across partisan lines. This technique seeks to reward not just attention, but “positive interactions across diverse audiences, including around divisive topics.” This flies in the face of both human psychology and media economics, but if we’re going to be ruled by machines they might as well try to nurture our better tendencies.
An academic scuffle has broken out at the University of Wisconsin over the administration of a researcher’s survey entitled “Student Perceptions of Campus Free Speech.” Senior faculty members are attempting to stop the undertaking, fearing Red-leaning bias and weaponization of the survey’s results. The question of whether or not there is actually an academic free speech issue, is, of course, contested – which is weird, because both Red and Blue are actively suppressing campus speech as of late, according to a database of speaker disinvitations. Then again, this is hardly the first time someone has fought not to collect data because they reject some line of thinking (for example, there is a disastrous lack of good data on gun violence because the Federal government was prohibited from collecting it for two decades).
In Depth: Politics And Personal Relationships
When Families Disagree About Politics- Susan Adcox
There are multiple books on this topic, but realistically no one is going to read them before the next family event. Instead this is the best short piece we could find, packed with actionable advice. It takes on tough questions (“What should you do when family unfriends you due to politics?”) and considers the issue of political squabbling as a mask for deeper issues. This is a compendium of mundane but essential life advice like:
Avoid assuming that you know where family members stand on certain issues
Don’t try to instill your values in someone else’s kids; defer to their parents
Have an exit strategy prepared, as in, “Thanks for the interesting discussion; I’ll think about that...”
I Only Want White Non-Racist Friends From Here On Out - Rebecca Stevens A.
These are strong words, but they represent the mindset of a woman who is tired of doing things for those who do not sufficiently affirm her political work. Ours is an era in which people notice what we don’t talk about as much as what we do discuss; for some, silence is just as combative as a campaign slogan. We offer this piece not because it lays out any particular solution, but because understanding the struggles that each person needs to have acknowledged can sometimes be the first step towards constructive dialogue.
How to have a better conversation about abortion - April Lawson
The nonprofit organization Better Angels hoped to create a space for better argument by hosting a traditionally formatted debate on the topic. But that’s not what wound up happening. Instead, the women in the room began sharing gut-wrenching personal stories of abortions they did and didn’t have. By seeing one another as complex human beings, an authentic and emotional (the good kind of emotional) discussion emerged.
How to Have a Conversation With Your Angry Uncle Over the Holidays - Karin Tamerius
We already kind of did the “how to discuss your views with family members who disagree” link above, but this piece brings it to another level. Some people might be visual learners, some prefer reading, but you might be a chatbot learner.
How Do I Talk to Someone I Don't Agree With? - Democracy for President
This is a set of resources for strengthening democracy by speaking with the other side during an election year. Originally written for the 2020 election, it’s just as fresh for 2022 and beyond. One of the key strategies is to focus on things that Red and Blue can agree on. There’s more here than you might think:
Duty means doing the right thing even when it’s hard.
If we have to wait to hear an accurate election result, that’s okay.
We must uphold the enduring tradition of America’s electoral process.
We can build on that, can’t we?
Quote of the Week
“We need to translate our political standards into personal action. If you believe that our laws are perpetuating social injustice, work for better laws. If you believe that social ills are better addressed through private charities, choose one and make a meaningful donation of time or money. You're more likely to influence others by living out your beliefs than by "winning" a political argument. When family relationships are damaged, no one wins.” -Susan Adcox
Thanks for reading!
Mary-Beth Ellis - reporter
Jonathan Stray - editor