Civil Political Discussions…with Grandma?

She may look sweet but she packs a punch

She may look sweet but she packs a punch!

It started with my husband’s grandmother. The dear, sweet, old lady we had the pleasure of visiting a few short years ago found Facebook and,  at least from my perspective, lunged out of her political closet, flaming our liberal friends, arrogantly peddling her Fox News views and generally making a hot, conservative mess of herself all over our virtual social scene. We always had vague suspicions of her political leanings. Yet we really had not anticipated that the woman who hosted a lovely holiday dinner while her grandson fixed her internet access, the great-grandmother of our children who could barely manage to figure out that e-mail thing well enough to respond to our letters, would cannonball onto the social networkingscene the way she did: an O’Reilly disciple, thumping her bible and tagging our friends’ walls with righteous fervor.

At first I tried to figure out ways to engage in polite political discourse with her. I would picture her serving turkey dinner and fawning over our daughters and try to reconcile these images with the increasingly angry and derisive person on facebook. I vaguely longed for the days before social networking outed Grandma as the rabid conservative she clearly is.

But then my homophobic, Lutheran, devoutly Republican father friended my husband on Facebook. In a matter of days he was showing distinct signs of political social menace. This case was progressing much more quickly than it had with Grandma. In order to keep familial peace, I insisted “we” unfriend him — not that unfriending particularly solves the problem as we have seen with Grandma. Even after she unfriended my husband in some scarlet rage over one or another of his “shocking liberal ideas,” she continues to troll our social circle.

I am not sure many of us were prepared for the way in which social networking has removed our ability to be blissfully unaware of the rather extreme political leanings of some of the people who are close to us. At least I, for one, feel no more prepared to engage in civil, productive, sane (and safe) political discourse with these individuals than I did before, when I merely imagined the nature and degree of their political opinions and beliefs. But the days of being able to pretend our family members are not those kinds of crazy Republicans are gone, thanks largely to Facebook.

Fair enough. This looks like a fabulous opportunity to learn how people we love and even admire can possibly hold political beliefs so different from ours! We have the perfect excuse to present the data, the facts and figures, the charts and graphs that so perfectly support our liberal ideas! We are all smart people, right? Then certainly we can find those points on which we agree and at least recognize and accept one another’s reasons for the points on which we do not.

Except…I have been down this path with my dad before. There is a reason we have chosen to agree to disagree on issues of politics, religion and homosexuality. Clearly I need help on how best to go about this process.

My first stop was lifehacker.com, where Thorin Klosowski offers some excellent rational political discussion guidelines. Certainly putting oneself in the opponent’s shoes is good advice for a variety of potentially contentious situations, and staying calm and civil at all costs is important, if sometimes difficult. Conceding when wrong is something I frequently push myself to do (even when I am certain it will kill me), though I do not expect either Dad or Grandma to follow suit. But finding common ground…that is just so much easier said than done, particularly once we have all reached the point of demonizing the very individuals with whom we are now hoping to productively converse.

Next I found an interesting (and entertaining) decision tree by Brandon Scott Gorrell. This reminds me of a Buddhist friend I used to know who rode the bus all over Denver. He was frequently approached by Christians who wanted to discuss religion with him, and he always began the conversation by saying, “I will discuss this with you. But as soon as you tell me I am going to hell, this conversation is over.” Unfortunately he always ended up doomed to hell and I have learned I will experience similar results with my extremely conservative family members if I take the decision tree approach.

After following link after link and finding plenty of great advice that somehow fails to solve my problem, I began to wonder: is there something about the nature of these close relationships that actually precludes our ability to rationally discuss politics with one another? Has our familiarity bred a beast between us that prefers to lash out in contempt when it could offer to accept out of love? It certainly is easier to discuss politics with nearly complete strangers, even when I quickly realize their views are far right of most of my own. Maybe the problem isn’t quite so much with the politics — though obviously that is a problem — but more with the relationships.

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Image: Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Tiffany Rapplean is passionate about far too many interests, though her geeky husband, online gaming and cat fostering certainly bubble to the top of the list. She often surrounds herself with rather non-mainstream people and topics, only to forget later, usually mid-conversation, that some of her comfortable topics are more than a little inappropriate for polite society. Her old science and tech podcast, Intellectual Icebergs, has long been on hiatus, but her alter ego currently adores ranting about politics on Twitter.