Column, Opinions

Navigating Political Discourse and Encouraging Constructive Conversations

Two trucks are driving at each other on a collision course. Each driver knows they are on the right path, and neither is willing to deviate because this is their path—they know they are right. 

This collision course is how political discourse can often feel. Two people enter a conversation convinced they are making the truly superior argument, both unwilling to retreat from their original opinion. 

Not all political conversations are collision courses, but the odds of a political debate getting nasty are high. Why even start a conversation or debate with someone if you know you won’t change their mind—and they won’t change your mind either? Many people recognize this dilemma, so they steer clear from sharing their political viewpoints. 

As a new columnist for The Heights, I am grappling with how I can share my opinions while avoiding a collision course. 

What can I say that is useful? What can I say that is not divisive but productive? What opinion can I share that will improve the Boston College community and bring people together?

I have one opinion that grounds all my others: While it may be difficult to speak your mind in particular classrooms or social settings, it is vital to have your voice heard. 

Too often, however, the fear of someone taking one’s statements the wrong way hinders many people’s motivation to enter a political discussion. It is rational to worry about offending someone—we should never intend to perpetuate an idea or opinion that harms others. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” By speaking your mind, you are taking this first step. You don’t have to know every answer, get every fact correctly, or have everyone agree, but you must have faith that you are working in the right direction by speaking authentically. 

There are a few things we can do better to improve our political discussions. First, we should never resort to personal attacks to demean others’ arguments. Referencing someone’s identity as a way to devalue their opinion is a distraction from the conversation and a hindrance to progress. Let me give an example. 

Person A says, “I believe we need stricter gun laws and enhanced background checks to improve gun safety.” 

Person B responds, “Well, Person A, you had no guns in your house growing up and come from a blue state so you don’t know what you are talking about. You are wrong.” 

In this example, Person B attacks Person A’s identity—but they do nothing to discredit the point that Person A made with any evidence or reason. As a result, progress in the conversation has yet to be made. While this is just one hypothetical, both sides of the political aisle use identity attacks in a wide variety of arguments.

Our identities are important and mold our understanding of social issues and worldviews, but weighing opinions based on identity diminishes human individuality. If only billionaires could discuss how to tax billionaires, we would quickly run into some issues. 

Another aspect of modern political discourse is shunning or isolating opinions we find harmful. We should always use our best judgment to avoid hateful language. But, if someone makes a statement that offends you, “canceling” this person may feel like a fair repercussion. In reality, however, it can be more harmful than helpful. 

Why? The reality is that humans want to be heard. If someone says something that elicits an offended reaction from people listening, cutting this person out and “canceling” them may push them toward more extreme groups in their political aisle—where they will be heard. 

To avoid this problem, offensive statements must be met with accountability via individual conversations with the person who made them. We should explain to others why their words were considered harmful, rather than isolate them. 

This brings me to my final point. As a University and country, we must increase our focus on the intent of others in conversation. I believe clarifying one’s intent at the beginning of a discussion is an excellent way to improve political discourse.

Too often, I find myself entrenched in an argument where it feels as though no one is accomplishing anything. We just toss what comes to our minds back and forth until we get tired of arguing. 

Expressing one’s intent is a great way to avoid these useless arguments. Here’s an example of a bad and a good way to start a discussion.

Bad way:

Person X: “You are saying free Palestine? Do you not care about the innocent Israelis dying?”

In this example, Person X throws an unwarranted accusation at the person they are talking to, immediately setting the stage for a combative and unproductive discussion. 

Good way:

Person Y: “You support Palestine? I have family in Israel and feel strongly about what is happening there. I’d be happy to discuss what’s going on to find some middle ground on getting to peace.”

Here, Person Y explains why they care about the issue and offers the option to engage in conversation while setting the intention to find some middle ground. This discussion is much more likely to head in a productive direction. 

By clarifying intentions, we can avoid the two-truck collision course. If you and your discussion counterpart note whether either of you is willing to change your mind on an issue, you can better decide whether engaging in conversation is worth it in the first place. 

As college students, it is our responsibility to consider the most difficult issues facing our world. We cannot avoid conversations on these tough issues, or we will never be able to solve them. 

If you hate politics or aren’t in the mood to talk about them at a given moment, that’s your choice. We should not fill every interaction with political conversations and force discourse into all facets of our lives. Instead, I urge that we not take freedom of expression for granted. It is perhaps the greatest gift that America affords to every one of its citizens. Let’s make full use of it.

October 31, 2023