Discussing Politics is Like Discussing Calculus

This is a companion post to another I did. In both, I’m working to explain the mental tools that have helped me approach politics better in conversation.


Imagine the following scenario: you’re talking with a new acquaintance about politics, and then they say that first little thing that indicates that the two you are not on the same side of any number of political divides. Damnit, you thought they were smarter than that.

You gingerly submit some disagreement, hoping to correct their error, but it seems like they are—somehow—unconvinced. Their stated reason for remaining so actually reveals that they were dumber than you thought!

An hour later you’re still talking, and have gotten nowhere because this uncultured swine / this coastal elitist can’t see the obvious points that you do. They can’t be convinced. But that’s just how some people are—they bury their heads in the sand [insert a disparaging comment about Obama or Trump here, depending on who you are].

I have witnessed an innumerable number of encounters that follow this pattern, and, sadly, have also participated in them. Some last for ten minutes, some stretch for hours into the night. In any case, they tend to be counterproductive, and are the reason that many people try to avoid discussing politics in mixed company.

But I love politics, and political philosophy. I think they’re fascinating, and, despite anyone’s opinion about the palatability of discussing them, those fields determine how our world works. Politics is both interesting and directly related to how we can live our daily lives (just try not paying your taxes and see what happens). What’s not to love?

Apparently, so many things. So many things are not to love.

Because I enjoy discussing politics, I usually bring it up when others wouldn’t, and I usually proceed onward with the conversation when others would have heeded the signs reading, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” But, after years of discussion, I think both my rhetoric and its content have improved dramatically. Like many activities, practice and refinement have improved my ability to discuss politics with a variety of people. Also like many activities, I can still improve.

One of the products of that improvement is an analogy. It has helped me to shed my frustration when I encounter political disagreement, even when it is based in ignorance, and has radically transformed the way that I discuss not just politics, but many subjects.

The analogy: politics is like calculus. Discuss it in the same way. And now here is a small dialogue about that:

Narrator: You’ve just completed your first year of calculus, and it is relatively clear to you (just pretend). You bump into a friend on the college quad, and sigh that you’re glad to be done with the class.

Friend: “Oh, which final did you just finish?”

You: “It was for my calc class. It was a lot of hard work, but it paid off—”

Friend: “Calculus? Ugh, how’d you get stuck with that? Was it a requirement?”

You: “No, I like it, I took it voluntarily. I’m actually an English major.”

Friend: “I’m an English major too, but I chose it so that I didn’t have to take any math. Calculus especially. All that 2x+y, and then find the value of y, just makes me want to jump out a window.”

You: “What? That’s Algebra. Calculus is the mathematical study of continuous change, like—”

Friend: “It’s all the same stuff. Algebra, Calculus, whatever.”

Narrator: You, our calculus fan (keep pretending), are likely now in a state of confusion and frustration. Clearly your friend has no idea of what calculus is, or the differentiation (ha) between the different branches of mathematics. You want to correct them. You want them to know what you know. You are very frustrated not only by their mistaken assertions, but the fact that they are assertions. How could this person be so confident in their ignorance??

After you return to your dorm room, you recognize the absurdity of your initial reaction. You were ready to dump an hour of your life into convincing your friend that calculus was different than algebra. You wanted them to know what you know, and for them to see the light.

But for your friend to know what you know, they’d have to understand mathematics as well as you do, and you have a firm grip on Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus. If they don’t even have a firm grip on Algebra, it’s foolish to think that you could endow them with your knowledge in an hour. Or even a year. Any conversation about mathematics would have to start with the arithmetical operations, and then move on from there. You now spread out on your bed, utterly overwhelmed by the task. It cannot be done. Your friend is doomed to innumeracy. The dummy.

END

 

I think it’s pretty clear that most people would not be able to learn the contents of one branch of mathematics in a short conversation, let alone several. If you set about trying to do that, you’re only setting yourself up for failure. Lesson: you can’t teach someone calculus in one hour, or even several. If you truly want them to learn the field, you have to first teach them all the prerequisite knowledge they’d need, and then begin on calculus—and this is assuming that you have some buy-in from the other person. It would take a dedicated effort from both of you over an extended period of time.

So why do we assume that we can teach someone else about politics in one hour, or even several? (Part of me thinks it has something to do with the idea that political philosophy/politics, a “humanity,” is not like physics, a hard subject, and everyone can take a very amateur crack at politics and come up with good results, but that’s a different essay.) Assume you have advanced knowledge of political theory, and a large amount of knowledge about current political events. Further assume that you encounter someone with neither of those things, who asserts something that contradicts your own thoughts. I bet this has happened, and I bet your reaction is one of frustration, and some version of “I must relieve this poor knave of their ignorance.”

Although this reaction is understandable, it can benefit from the reflection of our calculus student: it is unreasonable to think that you will be able to transfer years of hard-won knowledge about politics to another person in a short conversation. It is also unreasonable to start the conversation at an advanced level, and expect someone without any knowledge of the field to be able to engage.

If you want to have that conversation at all, you have to recognize the lessons of the calculus student:

  1. The conversation must start by establishing basic knowledge, definitions, and premises. Don’t come out of the gate asking what someone thinks about a complex piece of jurisprudence or legislation. Ask about basic ideas, like what the word “government” means to them, and hash that out. Or find a way to analogize more complex ideas in a simple way that doesn’t sacrifice key aspects of the complexity.
  2. One conversation is not enough. For someone to learn and understand advanced concepts in a field they’re new to, they will likely have to work for years. Your expectations about what one conversation can do, therefore, should be set accordingly.
  3. Being frustrated that a newcomer to a field of thought can’t meaningfully agree with your analysis of one of its advanced issues is…not helpful. Obviously, they won’t be able to do that. Getting frustrated helps no one.

When I keep the calculus analogy in mind, my political conversations go much better. And because they go better, I become more well-practiced. The more well-practiced I become, the better they go. You get it.

Now, I understand that politics as a field has different issues and is conceptually distinct from mathematics. Our society also has relatively stable agreement on what is “right” in math, where it doesn’t in politics. Even so, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a “right” in politics. The moral there is that sometimes you’re the calculus student, sometimes you’re the student’s friend, and sometimes you’re somewhere in between. You’ll have to be circumspect and on your toes to try to determine which you are.

If you discuss politics with someone, and you think you’re in the position of the calculus student, be gracious and patient—but still check for holes in your own knowledge. Maybe you do actually understand the field, but maybe you only know how to manipulate its formulas, rather than derive them.

If you think you’re the friend, be attentive and inquiring—but don’t agree with something until you understand it. Just because you’re new to the field doesn’t mean you’re dumb—intelligence and knowledge are different things.


This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

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