Discuss priorities, not for or against

TLDR; political arguments aren’t for/against, they’re priorities. Saying I’m for X/not against X is bad communication; we care how much you value/dislike something.

In political discussions I often hear people say something like “I’m not against gay marriage, I just…” or “I don’t want to take away people’s guns, I just…”. I think this is an unhelpful way to think about policy and instead of thinking about being for/against something we should think about priorities.

Let’s start applauding this rhetoric. It indicates a basic ability of acknowledge another persons concerns as legitimate and attempt to ameliorate them; which makes it the height of discourse in this partisan/social media/tribal age. If you do this, you’re doing basic empathy, that’s important and it will do a lot to maintain relationships with people with different political views1.

It gets something wrong though. At a gut level it’s the old saying “Ignore everything said before ‘but'”. Whenever I use this, people kind of ignore it and we get right back into arguing. Which is weird, the speaker basically says “I understand your concern, I promise not to do/support the consequence you fear”, and the listener ignores it. We’re trying to communicate something, to be nice to people and respect their views, and it “always” fails. In fact, it’s usually seen as insincere. This is odd because when I/the speaker say this, I’m almost always sincere. If someone says “I don’t hate purple people, I just” then 80% of the time the speaker is sincere in not hating purple people and the listener doesn’t trust this and presumes the speaker is lying/hates purple people. (insert appropriate culture war topic for purple)

So grant me the following situation.
-1 The speaker says he’s not against X
-2 The listener believes the speaker is lying, that the speaker is secretly against X
-3 Both people think people are either for or against things
-4 Fights occur when one side is for a thing and the other isn’t

I think point #4 is wrong.

Issues/policies don’t always lose ground because someone dislikes them; they often/usually lose ground when they come into conflict with something people value more. Take the environment for example; no one hates rivers/trees/birds and no one loves pollution. The environment loses, speaking more of you local environment than global warming, because it comes into conflict with jobs/housing. Your local park doesn’t get bulldozed into condos because people hate parks, they get bulldozed because people value condos more than parks. In this scenario, not being against parks isn’t super important; that’s not how the park will be destroyed.

For example, a list of things I don’t think anyone’s really against:
-Local environment
-Treatment for the mentally ill/homeless
-Animal rights (think factory farm abuses)
-Malaria bednets

But all of these things are underfunded/unsupported and require various interest groups/volunteers to push them. No one’s against them, but they still lose often. Your local environment comes into conflict with jobs/housing, treatment for the mentally ill comes into conflict with other government spending priorities, animal rights comes into conflict with jobs/corporate profits, and malaria bednets comes into conflict with every other charity trying to get a limited pool of funds. I won’t delve into politics/culture war here but I think this can be extended to gun rights, transgender rights, the deficit, war policy, tax cuts, medical care, university spending, etc. Essentially, one of the core tasks of politics is crafting policies in response to differing priorities. How much people care about something is more important than whether the like/dislike it.

This is where confusion/lying/”ignore everything before ‘but'” comes in. People have noticed that people saying “I’m not against X” doesn’t really get anything done; those people will not be politically supportive of the things we, as the listener, care about. But if we only model this as people being for/against things, then our best interpretation of their words and subsequent actions is deception/dishonesty. In reality, everything before the “but” is true, it just isn’t politically relevant.

This has 3 clear implications:
-1 For our thinking. Stop thinking of what you’re for and against and start thinking about how much you care about it. Rate it on a scale of 1-10, with 5 being ambivalent, 8 being willing to donate money, and 10 being willing to vote for an outgroup candidate (ie a lifelong Democrat voting Republican) based on this issue.
-2 For our speaking. The “I’m not against X” move doesn’t work. I’m not sure what does. Either avoid it or reframe it as “this is why X doesn’t matter as much to me as it does to you” which at least has the benefit of being honest and more accurate.
-3 For our listening. Don’t always assume that someone saying “I’m not against X” is lying. I think that’s where we default to, I certainly do, but it’s wrong. The speaker just has an inaccurate model/communication. Recognize that they’re trying to reach out to you, trying to address your concerns, and the failure and your/my feeling of being lied to isn’t a result of ill intent but a result of bad models/confusion.

  1. This isn’t important because you should have relationships with people of different political views. It’s important because you shouldn’t let politics decide/influence/undermine your relationships. Relationships/friendship/family are paramount, politics is secondary.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s