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How to have a political argument without losing your cool

Anger just makes one sound angry. It is not an effective way to make a political or policy argument.

After watching two recent news segments, one regarding Jihadi John and the other Homeland Security funding, I felt a little nauseated after seeing how heated the participants, including the journalists, became in airing their views. I was reminded me of a tip sheet I wrote a while ago on how to engage thoughtfully in a political argument, which I thought I’d share here.

Courtesy of the author
David Klein, of Maryland, and the author prepare to coach
students on the finer points of political debate.

1. If you are going to use the phrase, “it’s not personal, it’s only political,” keep personal matters out. But if someone’s personal life struggles are directly related to an argument, don’t mention them as irrelevant. If they are, make sure that you can make the connection.

2. If you wrote a piece detailing an argument and shared it with the public, don’t fear retaliation for your viewpoint. Have confidence in your views. Most of the time what fear you feel is irrational. If you feel fearful, ask yourself “why?” and write down the reasons and read them back to yourself.

3. If you have made a critique in your argument offer a positive way for improvement or a correction to be made by the person or entity you are critiquing. Demands or complaints, over time, tend to make others grow tone deaf.

4. One shouldn’t use race, ethnicity, orientation, gender, disability, age, etc., as part of the argument. It doesn’t help your argument to state that you are not a racist or a bigot, because it makes it clear to most that you in fact are a racist or a bigot.

5. Use caution in labeling someone as a “racist,” “terrorist,” “bigot” or “sexist” when they might just be ignorant in their choice of wording.

6. Anger just makes one sound angry. It is not an effective way to make a political or policy argument. It just makes one seem means, which could be the case. If you perceive a person or group to be angry or irrational, don’t rile them up; be smart, walk away, let them cool off.

A couple extras:

  • If you don’t like a candidate’s platform, you should do one of two things: vote for another candidate or run for office. A person should not vote for a candidate whose platform they don’t support; that seems a bit irrational. (Alhough we’ve all been guilty of doing things out of spite, like when I voted for Bush because I don’t care too much for John Kerry.)
  • If you don’t like a particular elected official or their platform, in the words of the President, “Then go out there and win an election.”

Aaron Lee Wittnebel lives in St. Paul.


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