Why Do We Insist on Debating Politics With Our Friends and Family?

Why not just agree to disagree, rather than disagree to agree and often end up being disagreeable? 

The gruelling election season has come to a slow and grinding end and we await the results. However, debates continue to rage, from family gatherings to local tea-shops to TV screens to (un)social media, leading to frayed tempers and fractured relations.

These debates seem to generate enough heat and light to solve India’s energy needs – but given that the technology for such energy conversion does not exist beyond the fevered imagination of it-was-all-invented-in-ancient-India fantasists, what do they achieve? If it is just about ideology, there is no accounting for tastes and so no point debating – whether it is our choice over potatoes and tomatoes, or how we pronounce them, as in the famous Ella Fitzgerald song:

“You like potato and I like potahto
You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto.
Let’s call the whole thing off.”

But with close friends and family, this is not a desirable option. The same song goes on to say:

“But oh if we call the whole thing off then we must part
And oh, if we ever part, then that might break my heart.”

So why do we still debate in our social spheres? Why not just agree to disagree, rather than disagree to agree and often end up being disagreeable?

Now it is true that all of us often do what we should not be doing, like having that extra portion of food or wasting time before a deadline by surfing the internet and regretting it the morning after. If this is largely the case for political debates with friends and family, then is it simply a matter of greater self-control and delaying certain get-togethers until the political season is over, or can there be more to it?

Also read: On May 23, Will We Turn to the Darkness or Will We Reach For the Light?

Most debates can be reduced to differences in ideology or facts or opinions. Let us take them in turn.

You can say “each to his or her own taste” when it is a matter of personal preferences, such as potatoes or tomatoes in the Fitzgerald song. But even here matters are not so simple – just think of adding beef to this menu! People not only seem to have strong preferences, which is natural, but also opinions about other people’s preferences, whether it is diet or dress, books or films.

This is hard to comprehend if we respect freedom of choice and treat all individuals as having equal rights. Otherwise, by the same argument applied reciprocally (“sentiments being hurt” being the phrase of choice these days) any other group can try to interfere with how we lead our lives. Of course, when other people’s choices directly interfere with how we lead our lives (such as religious prayers or music blaring from loudspeakers in the neighbourhood) there should be some rules. But, overall, when the values or ideologies are very different, agreeing to disagree or keeping a safe distance seems a good operative principle in our social lives.

Applying this logic to political debates, why not avoid talking politics, or avoid talking altogether with people whose views we find disagreeable, rather than stretch our vocal chords or raise our hackles and blood pressure, and make others around us tremble as sparks fly? After all, what can you possibly say to change the worldview of a right-winger who describes anyone who disagrees with him or her as anti-national or pseudo-secular? Similarly, to a leftist who describes anyone who disagrees with him or her as neoliberal (which would include pretty much anyone from a social-democrat to a free market fanatic), what can one say other than “have a good revolution”?

Ideologies define what our ideal societies look like, and as much as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, the vision of an ideal society lies in the imagination of the bewitched. However, as much as my freedom ends where your nose begins, ideologies can be violently incompatible, and that is where applying the Ella Fitzgerald principle of calling the whole thing off makes more sense than calling each other names like Sanghi or Naxal!

Weather is always a good topic to discuss (just don’t let it slide down to a debate on global warming) or cricket (just don’t mention Pakistan and Miandad’s last ball six in the Sharjah World Cup in 1986) or Bollywood films (just don’t mention Pakistan, again) but it is best to keep the interactions short, sweet and scarce.

Also read: More Than EVMs, It Is ‘the Hindu Mind’ Which Has Been Effectively Rigged

Most debates, however, are not about ideologies (beyond “how can you support…!” and the inevitable “what about…!”) but, at least on the surface, about facts. For certain types of factual debates – over facts that are objectively verifiable – agreeing to disagree is pointless. Only one person can be right. Therefore, to the extent we are rational, we should not agree to disagree – rather, we should agree or keep quiet if we are unsure and check the facts later.

Even when the fact is not yet established and there is some uncertainty about it, say, about the returns of an asset, or the outcome of the just-concluded election, there is not much scope for disagreement if people are rational. Otherwise, you can lose money. Financial markets and betting markets operate on this principle.  Suppose you believe that the stock value of a company is going to rise when it is likely to fall. Then those who are more informed will sell their stocks to you, and in the end, you will pay for your mistaken beliefs when stock prices of that company fall. In betting markets, if you disagree with the market odds, you are more likely to lose money.

Extending this to the political domain, even if there are no financial stakes, one would think that caring about one’s credibility and the sheer dislike for being proven very wrong on matters about which the facts will soon emerge, such as election outcomes, would make us open to updating our views in the light of facts or credible accounts even if they clash with our existing beliefs.

However, when facts cannot be objectively established, views about them become subjective opinions as opposed to objective assessments or data-based predictions, for which one can, in principle, put money behind one’s words. An example is, critics of Narendra Modi believe that his rule has been associated with a rise in majoritarian intolerance and a corresponding rise in insecurity amongst minorities and Dalits. Similarly, to his supporters, the claim that Modi has made India stronger through a tough foreign policy (as in the Balakot strikes) is beyond dispute.

Also read: EVM Miscounts, VVPATs and the Citizen’s Right to a Secret, Verified Ballot

It is much harder to achieve any unanimity about these claims using facts that are beyond dispute than, say, economic outcomes (even though the controversies about the measurement of national income or data on unemployment suggest that “objectivity” of facts spans a spectrum rather than being a black or white matter). These are exactly the foggy terrains where debates can rage without any convergence of views, and charges of selective outrage and whataboutery – stemming from the suspicion that latent ideological biases determine which issues and what “facts” someone focuses on – thrive.

Opinions also include, among other things, explanations and interpretation of facts. For example, why did the economy under Modi not grow faster than in the previous decade, despite all the claims about the magic of Modinomics? Some will blame economic mismanagement – policy misadventures like demonetisation and messy implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, while others will argue that it will take time and tough measures to clean up the mess left by the previous government, such as the pile-up of non-performing assets and inflation caused by greater budget deficits.

As with most economic and political phenomena, it is possible to provide some evidence in support of either view, but nothing can be guaranteed to convince someone to change his or her views.

In such cases, what do debates accomplish? It may be to show off one’s superior knowledge or intellect or verbal skills, not just to one’s opponent but often to those listening to the debate. With friends and family members, however, that is not a winning strategy, like a rough tackle in a friendly football match.

The only reason, then, must be the (often vain) hope to persuade. With friends and family, we often assume some shared ground in terms of values and so debates may be a way of appealing to these and bringing their views closer to our own. More subtly, the goal may be to indirectly try to convince some of the others who are present and more open to persuasion.

Where does this desire to persuade come from? For potatoes and tomatoes, by agreeing to disagree each of us can still have what we like and the pleasure of each other’s company. That is not possible in political matters. For example, in this election, two people who politically disagree cannot both have their desired outcome. Yet whether someone likes the outcome or not, everyone will be affected by it.

So, if you were planning a large gathering of friends and family this coming weekend, you might want to take Ms Fitzgerald’s advice and call the whole thing off.

Maitreesh Ghatak is Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics. He tweets @maitreesh.