How to Have Thoughtful Political Discussions on the Internet

giraffes having a discussion

I can hear it now. "What a stupid title for a post!" And maybe it is. Can we can have thoughtful political discussions on the internet? I'm not convinced that most people want to do so, even though many will claim otherwise.

Insulting those who hold political views different from ours seems to be what many prefer. We have trouble stepping away from what strikes us as a high-stakes contest long enough to understand those who hold different views. We don't like the idea that understanding another's views might lead us to change our minds. After all, we are right about all the important things.

This post was inspired by some comments left on a post about what liberal atheists think about conservative atheists. I am interested in improving my understanding of conservative atheists and what they believe. This is why I wrote that post. It became clear from some of the comments (here and elsewhere) that trying to understand one another was not appealing to everyone. This made me suspect that getting beyond the "liberal" and "conservative" labels and talking about specific issues might be more productive.

The problem, as I see it, is that our political tribalism seems to get in the way of almost any discussion we try to have. Immigration, gun policy, climate change, military spending (I cannot bring myself to use the "defense spending" euphemism), public education, healthcare, etc. There's no shortage of important issues we should be able to discuss in a thoughtful manner. But we have turned almost all of them into scenarios where "our side" is morally righteous while "their side" is pure evil. This sounds too much like how religious believers operate for me to feel comfortable with it.

Strategies for Having Thoughtful Political Discussions

If we were going to have more thoughtful political discussions online, what might it look like? Here are some ideas:

  1. Try to discuss specific issues and consider the merits of policies that might help to resolve them.
  2. Stop viewing these discussions as opportunities to "win" and view them as opportunities to learn.
  3. Those who want to be more effective in advocating for their views should realize that being able to accurately express the views held by those on the other side is essential.
  4. As soon as the name-calling begins, ignore those who are doing it and focus on those who are being reasonable.
  5. Do not deprive yourself from hearing the good ideas those on the other side may have.
  6. Let go of the need to have the last word. Walk away if it becomes clear that the person you are talking with is unreasonable.
  7. Recognize that your tendency to demonize those who hold different political views is counterproductive to what you say you value.
  8. Pause every so often and ask yourself whether you wish there were more discussions like the one you are having.
  9. Appreciate that politics is every bit as much about emotion and values as it is about facts.
  10. Adopt the principle of charity and assume the best from the other party.

Most of these seem obvious. They also seem to be rather uncommon. If we want to inject some more reason into our politics and improve the quality of our political discourse, trying some of them may help. What would you add?

This post was revised and updated in 2021.