Disengaging from politics

When I was a teenager, I thought politics was the most fascinating thing in the world. How was it that ordinary people could come to startlingly different conclusions? I used to pore over opinion pages, particularly those I disagreed with. I started a blog, and found that articulating my stances was a good way to make me scrutinise them. In my undergraduate degree, we were allowed just one course outside engineering; I did mine in political science. On the big issues of the day (in New Zealand) — civil unions, Māori rights, welfare structure — I felt that people often disagreed a lot less than they realised. I was convinced that robust debate helped us along our collective search for answers, or at least quest for understanding, even if we never quite ended up fully synchronised.

I don’t know what made me so attached to the idea, but I held on to that naïvety for a long time. Naturally, many of my opinions grew stronger, and many more changed: I subscribe today to few of the opinions that my teenage self did. But even two years ago I was adamant that, if you want to persuade a political opponent, you have to understand them on their terms, and if you want to understand an issue, you need to understand all of its sides. On social media, I avoided echoing what others were posting, blogged only if I felt I had something new to contribute, and tried to share articles that made me think (though I didn’t always succeed). I hoped that, by doing so, I’d challenge my friends to consider their positions just a little more deeply.

It doesn’t work. It has never worked.

To be clear, I’ve never been so naïve to expect to change anyone’s mind in a single conversation. I consider it progress if either I plant an initial doubt in the mind of my companion, or I learn about a new perspective myself. If we achieve both ways, even better. Swinging someone around is an occasional bonus, but it normally takes me days or weeks of reflection to change an opinion, so I don’t expect anyone else to change overnight, either.

But it’s not just that we lack the patience to engage in such long exercises — we actively resist the idea of doing so. I used to say that even bigots can be reasoned with; I erred in using bigots as the sole archetype of stubbornness. Today’s liberals are sharply divided over how best to keep university campuses safe, the degree to which privileged groups are culpable for their privilege, and even who should be allowed to speak and be heard. These divisions are of course not at all bad, if they are indicative of healthy debate. But the penalty we impose on others for being wrong, or of a mildly different opinion, isn’t having their misconceptions corrected. It’s being ridiculed, shamed and outcast.

After a decade, I’ve finally realised that people don’t engage in political debates to learn, to resolve, or even to persuade. We do so because we know we’re right, and we want others to know how right we are too. My younger self thought we debated in order to find what is correct. I now understand that we debate only when we know we’ll conclude what is a priori correct.

If this is what it’s about, I’ve had enough. Politics isn’t something that one engages in. It’s something that happens to me. The sooner I accept this, the happier I’ll be.

I have a habit of starting New Year’s resolutions in around November. I’ve been slowly backing away from political discussions for a while now. But a resolution isn’t a resolution unless it’s specific and measurable, so here goes.

First, some exceptions. There are two topics that I personally care enough about and are sufficiently niche that I’m excluding them from the scope of my resolutions. The first is gender diversity in engineering, and the second is mathematics education. There’s also just one post on another topic I’ve been intending to write for years, so if I get around to that during 2018, that doesn’t count. (I’m not disclosing what it is here, but if you know me well and want to hold me to my abstention goals, ask me in private.)

Here’s the measurable part of my resolution:

  1. I will make at most two Facebook posts in 2018 on political topics, other than those excluded above.
  2. I will not tweet about any political topics not excluded above.
  3. I will not comment on any political Facebook threads unless they concern an area of professional or academic expertise of mine (e.g., telecommunications or machine learning).

In something less measurable, I’m also going to start training Facebook to hide overtly political posts from my News Feed. Sorry in advance to those friends of mine I’ll be seeing less of as a consequence.

I realise there’s something of a definitional problem here, particularly if you accept (as I do) that the personal is political (well, sometimes). Here are some groups that are definitely in scope: any topic with obvious partisan implications, and any topic commonly considered to relate to social justice. Those two between them are a pretty broad set, and cover everything I can think of.

Also, there’s a notable omission from the above list: I haven’t banned myself from political discussions in person. In principle, I also want to do this, but unlike online discussions I often find these useful, and I haven’t found a simple way to distinguish between the useful and the unproductive. Instead, I’m going to have to settle for the fuzzy-to-almost-meaningless resolution to cut discussions short once they show signs of being an unproductive argument. Here’s a list of cases that are useful, so I will continue to engage in them:

  • where someone is explaining an issue to me that I have little prior knowledge or belief about,
  • where I’m explaining neutrally an issue to someone who has little prior knowledge or belief about it,
  • where I’m talking to someone who is neither Kiwi nor American about their own country’s politics, or (because I should return the favour) where I’m talking to someone who is not Kiwi about New Zealand politics, and
  • where someone is explaining a perspective that is informed by their own personal anecdote.

That list might be non-exhaustive, but hopefully it gives some intuition for what the opposite is.

Lastly, you might be wondering: if I’m quitting political engagement, what’s going to fill the void? Well, as it happens, I picked up two new hobbies during autumn this year. Also, I have a PhD to get on with. So don’t worry, I’ll keep myself busy.



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