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Politics in Polite (or not-so-polite) Company

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As Election Day approaches - political rhetoric is getting tenser. Even relatively innocuous stories from the campaign trail seem to ignite heated arguments.

At times, those strong disagreements play out at public forums, social gatherings, or family get togethers.

Chris Thomas has this.  

So, you’re at the office or you’re around the dinner table – and then it happens: the conversation turns to politics.

“There has been many a family gathering where the subject was dropped…”

Mary Tucker-McLaughlin, a communication professor at ECU and former news producer.

“…because people did not agree, could not agree, and, you know, it was problematic.”

Dr. Tucker-McLaughlin said, in her experience, people don’t usually “go there” unless it is an election year. Unfortunately, this is an election year and an especially contentious one at that.

With eastern North Carolina in a swing state – and an especially controversial one at that – subjects that start heated arguments between loved ones or colleagues are in no short supply.

“And so people like to share their views, there tons of ads out there. There are things happening with the candidates every day and of course people want to talk about it.”

She says that’s not necessarily a bad thing – diverse discourse about politics should be encouraged.

Claudia Sundnan is a Greenville resident. She’s appalled by the lack of civility.

“It’s been terrible. I’ve never seen our country so terribly polarized. We’re just at…opposite ends of the spectrum and people aren’t listening to the other, we’re just into our own selves and just not listening to the other.”

Compassion, she believes, is a missing element in the conversation.

“We are not only not talking to one another but we’re not understanding one another.”

It harkens back to the long-held belief that a person cannot talk about politics and religion in polite company.

Brad Lockerbie, a political science professor at ECU, believes it speaks to an underlying matter: morality.

“People feel a little bit more strongly about those than other issues that are more negotiable that you can compromise more easily on economic policy, spending, taxes and such. You can split the difference on abortion, or prayer, or gay rights.”

Lockerbie, a professed political junkie, enjoys talking policy and theory. But when things become overly acrimonious – that’s when it’s time to walk away.

"If the conversation can't be restored to a level of amenity or calmness, I don't feel like I have an obligation to take part in it."

There are times, though, when that’s not always an option – unless you want to further strain a key professional or personal relationship. Sometimes, you just have to grin and bear it.

Unless something else comes up.

“It’s always good to just redirect the conversation if it’s not going in a pleasant direction and if people are going to be upset.”

That shouldn’t be too hard. Diversity is a defining trait of the national culture and Dr. Lockerbie believes there’s usually another topic to grab everyone’s attention.

“Most of us don’t let politics animate our lives entirely. We have other interests whether it be sports or just simply tending to our family that takes presence over politics.”

So, how does one leave point A and move to B? Sometimes, that may require clever thinking – finding a word or phrase related (even loosely) to another, more pleasant topic and bringing that up instead.

If that window is too narrow, then perhaps a more direct and proactive approach is needed. Before things can get too heated, it may be worth reminding everyone where their priorities should lay, Dr. Tucker-McLaughlin says.

“You know, you can also talk to family members about the importance of just listening to each other – not interrupting, not pointing fingers, not making arguments and discourse personal – but making them about facts and about what’s out there. And…sometimes that helps and other times you just have to set it aside and say ‘this is just not something we can discuss right now.’”

If that doesn’t work – then one may have to retreat into one’s mind for relief. Amy Bright, an ECU student and an activist, tries to remember that we’re all people here.

“I always try to remember that everybody is a human being and everybody has the same, general, human characteristics regardless of which side of the aisle we reside on. And what that means is that we’re all complex, we’re not ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – we’re all somewhere in the middle of that.”

And for those who may be itching to bring up those polarizing subjects around the Thanksgiving turkey or the water cooler – perhaps you could take a word of advice from Glenn Hubbard, one of Dr. Tucker-McLaughlin’s colleagues at the ECU School of Communication.

“Is this hot topic that everybody’s so up in arms about…is it really that important for me to say my piece about?”

Nov. 8 is Election Day – but that doesn’t mean political conversation ends Nov. 9. This election – on all levels – has dug into raw, emotional parts of the electorate’s psyche. No matter who wins, the conversation will continue and it may not always be pleasant.

But you may have the ability to help turn the conversation away from hostility and toward civility.   

I’m Chris Thomas.