How to have some good political discussions

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Facts

It is surprising how little we know about almost anything. Often, our opinions are based on incorrect facts. Let us take some examples. Many of us are frustrated by the quality of government services in India. I come across many people who believe that this is because government employees get a low salary. This is just incorrect. Salaries for government employees are generally much higher than for people employed by the private sector in similar jobs. Or take the fact that only one in four youth in India enrolls in a college. I bet that not many folk reading this piece would be aware of this. Or that on an average a Lok Sabha constituency in India has anywhere between 2.5 to 20 times the voters in other democracies. These facts, if widely known, can totally change a conversation about crucial topics such as employment and democracy in the country.

Frameworks

My father and I used to have many discussions and one recurring topic was foreign investment in India. The country liberalised its industrial and economic policy in the early 90s. My father had a deep distrust of foreign investment. Often he would ask me if I thought that the investors were coming to India for anything other than profit? He thought that it was a clinching argument. His mental model said that if the foreign company made profit it was automatically bad for India. My understanding of the world is different. I think that business is not a zero sum game and a flourishing business can help the society to flourish.

Feelings > (Facts + Frameworks)

The biggest barriers to a good discussion are our feelings. These feelings get in the way of listening and when you are not listening, you do not even know that you are not listening. Let me illustrate this with an experience.

Ego

Do you discuss to know more or to be right? I catch myself trying to be right in a discussion all the time and I am sure that I don’t catch myself many more times. As is well known, if you are trying to be right, then you wouldn’t be listening. Instead, you will be thinking of how to respond.

I am a member of ___(Insert tribe)

Humans are social animals. We have a desperate need to belong to a group. The power of this feeling is best explained by a very short blog post from the guru Seth Godin which I have reproduced below in full

“People like us do things like this”

There is no more powerful tribal marketing connection than this.

Steelmanning

Many times in discussions, we distort our opponent’s arguments in an absurd fashion and then attack the distorted version. This is called strawmanning. As this article says, Strawmanning commonly takes the form of ‘So what you are saying is…’ and is very prevalent in TV studio ‘debates’. The opposite of strawmanning is to steelman. That is, to articulate your interlocutor’s arguments as well as you can.

The magic question

A question that can significantly improve the quality of a discussion is some variation of, “What would be the most reasonable case for a person to hold a view contrary to yours?” Let us illustrate this with an example.

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Yogesh Upadhyaya

Yogesh Upadhyaya

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Entrepreneur. Economist. Investor. Actor. Technophile. Policy wonk. Comedian. I love to explore places where these worlds intersect.