Discussing politics with prudence

The September 11 terrorist attacks marked the first point that I became interested in politics. My teachers at school had us read Time for Kids each Friday afternoon, which included accounts of the attacks. I tuned in to Nick News with Linda Ellerbee each week. I was not much of an athlete, and while other kids my age had a keen fascination for televised sports, I spent a great deal of time watching televised news.

In high school, my interest in politics took a more vitriolic, unsavory form. I would engage in comment flame wars on Yahoo! News articles and post scathing rants on my Facebook page. This caused damage to some personal relationships I had in high school. Over time, my aggressive online activity tapered out, and I was able to retroactively take inventory of the damage my overbearing interest in politics took on my personal life.

Make no mistake, though, I still love politics. I dutifully try and keep up with current events, and always try to compare what I read from The Washington Post and New York Times with the scathing criticism of television personalities like Stephen Colbert or John Oliver.

No matter how varied their opinions are, all “politics people” share the belief that an informed member of society is an empowered one. But being a “politics person” requires a bit of mindfulness, respect and prudence.

Being passionate about politics requires restraint. Otherwise, “politics people” risk alienating themselves from their friends, family and colleagues in a way that people passionate about sports, music or food do not. Throughout my life, I have learned a few lessons that may offer guidance to others who want to use their passion for good, not self-harm.

First, using social media as a soapbox for our own opinions carries inherent risks. It is important to think critically about how well one’s opinion might be received. It is easy to get worked up, and taking our emotions out on our Facebook pages is tempting.

But most of us should operate off the assumption that our posts may not be generally well-received. Even if we may have insight to offer, we should always go about our online activity with the assumption that our views would be best communicated in person with someone who is ready and willing to engage in political discussions.

While Facebook has helped us become more informed citizens, it has also caused some of us to engage in a weaker, less productive manner than real-life conversations. When we engage in a political debate on Facebook, it is less likely that we do so in an open and respectful manner. Personally, I have never truly engaged in a healthy, meaningful exchange of ideas with somebody online (particularly with opposing partisan views).

In person, it is even more important to be mindful of social situations that do not warrant a discussion on politics. Thus, a good rule of thumb is to always let somebody else initiate a discussion in politics. That way, you avoid making others feel uncomfortable by pushing discussion in a direction that is not intended.

Some aspects of our politics are closely tied to deep personal values. Therefore, it is wise to consider reserving our politics for more personal settings. We all have stories, opinions and values that we share with people only in rare and reserved settings. Our politics should be treated as such.

That is not to say that politics cannot be an important part of a relationship between human beings. Having friends and romantic partners that can engage with you in political discussions is a great joy, but requires a process of building trust and respect first.

Finally, it is important to note, just like anything else people can be passionate about, that expressing a passion for politics is healthy and necessary. Being passionate about politics is often tied to our disdain for politics and the people that participate in it. Like any other negative emotion, it is important to identify when expressing that passion is harming ourselves and others.

That may mean asking if Facebook statuses or ranting to the guy in the sauna is really healthy for anybody. From personal experience, having a handful of friends I can engage with every once in a while is an incredibly rewarding, cathartic and valuable experience.

For many of us, it is easy to forget how our passion for politics affects others. For those in the worlds of journalism, business and politics itself, having a keen awareness of national issues is a great strength. Still, it is important to distinguish between honest conversation and ranting. “Politics people” like myself believe that everybody can benefit from being more informed members of society. However, being able to communicate those ideas is a challenge that requires patience, prudence and mindfulness.