Talking About Politics? An Electronic Olive Branch That Works

Since the 1980s, seven of my high school classmates get together annually to watch the Super Bowl, play poker, and drink beer. We spend even more time talking these days, as we share the trials of our life’s journey with old friends of the same age. We’re scattered about the country and across the political spectrum—from a Left Coast professor who donated to Obama to a Right Coast retiree who thinks the President was born in Kenya—so between games we’ve connected via email in a lively and frank discussion on a wide range of topics.

As you might guess, in the past few years the political exchanges have escalated to electronic Molotov cocktails. When I complained about them to my kids, they told me they admire our loyalty, for they disconnected from their classmates with contrarian views long ago.

I was worried the same thing would happen to us, so I shared my concerns with Joan Blades, who has been active in trying to cross the political divide for years. She advised me what to say, and I’m thrilled to report that it worked!  I no longer wake up dreading email to South High School Varsity Poker, our tongue-in-cheek email alias,  as upsetting exchanges on politics have vanished.

When I later thanked Joan, she suggested that I share my story, as many groups and even some families are facing the same problem. If you’re in a community of people you care about facing similar disbandment, please imitate, forward, or plagiarize my exact response to a provocative political email that worked with my old pals:

A friend has been trying to bridge the gap between conservatives and liberals for the past 10 years.  Her advice is that email is a poor way to have a discussion; will anyone change their minds? She recommends face to face meetings over food, with people asking questions and listening intently to the answers.”Listening to learn” vs “Listening to win”.  In fact, she is a cofounder of an organization with online guides on how to run such conversations.

I don’t know if we want to try Living Room Conversation, but I’d appreciate it if we don’t send emails to each other that cast doubt on the patriotism or sanity of people with different political views or politicians in other parties. It will not change anyone’s minds, just make friends mad at you for what you’re passing along.

And it’s not OK to send inflammatory email with a tagline like “if of interest” and that absolves you of any responsibility for the reactions of your friends. If you read it, you’re just as angry no matter what the subject line says.

I met an FBI agent this summer who said that Russians are absolutely creating false information both on the left and the right to try to create chaos in this country, and he said it was working. Many young people now are cutting off friends who have different political views, further exacerbating the split in this country.

If you find something outrageous online that the other side is doing, consider the possibility that its false propaganda intended to disrupt our nation that we all love. Please don’t help spread chaos.

I’d rather not cut off communication with my old friends, but I don’t want to wake up every morning and feel I have to spend time responding to what I consider irresponsible statements. There must have been 20 times in the last decade that I had to take time to find evidence that an outrageous story one of you sent that was false. With Russians planning to disrupt the 2020 elections, we’re going to get inundated with stories trying to provoke one side or the other. Life is too short to spend it reacting to such fabricated tripe.

David Patterson is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and winner of the 2017 ACM A.M. Turing Award