Why You Should Fight the Impulse to Be Political

by Amy Shaw on May 22

Trump for President 2
“If you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain!”

How many times have we heard this warning? How many times have we believed it?

The importance of voting is drummed into us from an early age. Voter registration initiatives are everywhere, from college campuses, to community organizations, to online campaigns. Voter turnout is still alarmingly low, especially in midterm elections, but that’s beside the point. At least society tries to get us to be political in this way, even if it doesn’t always succeed.

The imperative to vote is just one of the many ways that we are encouraged to be political, to have an opinion…but where, I wonder, are all the collective efforts to get people to develop informed opinions? Isn’t that just as important?

Do you want to be political, or do you want to be informed?

The problem is, every step of the way, we are not trained to be informed, we’re trained to be political.

At no time is that truer than in an election year. Lately, you may have noticed that everyone is being political all the time, and as a result, things frequently devolve to a negative place. Social media is a scary quagmire lately, you’ve either ended friendships or seen friendships ended around you over politics, and family gatherings are perhaps more tense than usual.

In other words, your life is probably a deluge of opinion right now. And if you don’t learn to swim, you could very well drown and never get to choke out a single word.

What I mean to say is that it is very, very easy to give into popular sentiments during an election. Opinion floods us from every angle. And the water may look cool and inviting, but actually, it’s powerful as fuck, the tide of popular opinion.

So how do you learn to stay afloat? How do you learn to swim outside the current, of which there are many, and form your own opinion?

Here’s an adage I’ve taken up: First, be informed. Then, be political.

Social media does not care about informing you

 Guess what it does care about? Getting you to be political.

Think about it. The more opinions you see on Facebook that you agree with, the more you use Facebook. The more you click “like,” the more you use Facebook. The more you share, the more you use Facebook. Facebook depends on you continually seeing content you like, so that you continue using it.

To this end, for some time now, Facebook has been niftily curating our content to create a completely user-centered experience. What you see when you scroll through your Facebook feed is a reflection of who/what you’ve already “liked” or interacted with in the past. Oh, messaging a lot with someone? Here’s more of their statuses on your feed. Like a few posts from a page? You’ll see more posts from that page in your feed.

What this means is that social media is becoming one giant echo chamber (or, more like a conglomeration of lots of mini echo chambers, each one highly individualized). Basically, when you use social media, you’re creating a self-reflexive bubble where everyone agrees, has the same ideals, and wants the same things.

This is no way to be informed in any kind of neutral or objective way.

Social media is designed to reproduce your existing beliefs and opinions, not to reveal new and interesting information. Facebook cares about you continuing to use Facebook, not about informing you.

But if you’re going to use social media for political purposes, at least do it smartly.

Don’t share things you haven’t researched

 I’m just going to say it: political memes are usually bullshit. They reduce complex issues into simplistic, easily digestible form. Yes, they can be awesomely funny, but I’m not talking about that kind. I’m talking about the kind that make dubious claims from even more dubious sources (or don’t cite their sources at all, which is probably more frequent).

Seriously, research that shit. And ask yourself why you feel the need to share something. Do you want to be responsible for the proliferation of more (poorly informed) opinion, or do you want to be a beacon of truth and reason? If you have access to social media, you have access to a simple Google search. There is no excuse for spreading blatant lies in the age of instant information.

 At one point during the election, I decided I wanted to escape all of the noise and just learn about the candidates on my own. So you know where I turned? Wikipedia. Yes, Wikipedia. One of my professors in grad school put it best: Wikipedia is great for finding out what things are.

By that logic, Wikipedia is also great for finding out who candidates are and what they have done—background, where they have worked, significant accomplishments, and so on. The great thing about Wikipedia is that it doesn’t tell you how to think about the information, it just presents you with the information.

There are some good principles to keep in mind when doing research online. It’s too much to include in this article, but feel free to ask me in the comments if you are curious.

Know how to discern good journalism from bad journalism

 Of course, we can’t inform ourselves just by reading Wikipedia all day. Sometimes we have to inform ourselves with more than the facts—we need opinions. But we need smart opinions.

We often harp on others for presenting us with “biased sources,” but the thing is, all media is biased. That’s not really a problem so long as writers are transparent as possible about their bias. Me? I’m a liberal Democrat who voted for Bernie but likes Hillary about the same. So there you go. Nothing to hide.

The problem lies with heavily biased media that tries to pass itself off as “truth.” Be wary of claims to “truth,” always. Politico is a fairly decent source of journalism that features opinions from both sides of the aisle. If anything, it’s biased towards establishment politics—people already in office and what’s currently happening in Washington. If you’re looking for smart writing that’s more radical/left-leaning, Jacobin is where it’s at. The Washington Post is a staple for conservative opinions.

A little research can take you to any place on the political spectrum. Learn about their established, respected publications, and read them. It will make you smarter than the US Uncut or Buzzfeed articles your friends are sharing, I promise. Pay attention to where your “news” is coming from and whether other sources are reporting on the same thing.

Open yourself up to political diversity

If you’re trying to be more informed, it’s a good idea to read a little bit of everything. If you’re liberal, have you ever taken the time to sit down and read a conservative think piece on a topic that interests you? Do you talk to your conservative friends about why they think the way they do? Do you have conservative friends?

There’s a reason I’m encouraging you to seek out diverse opinions. These “crazy right-wingers?” These “libtards?” These people you (and others) have very strong opinions about? They’re your family, your friends, your coworkers, your classmates, your neighbors.

Diversity is what makes America rich (yes, “diversity” includes the opinions of those you vehemently disagree with). The spirit of intense debate runs deep in the soul of America. Our system is designed for it, built around it. Maybe it’s the reason that America has not gone along the same path as many (more liberal) European countries—because we treat differing opinions too fairly.

I read a story recently about a trans woman who decided attended an evangelical church meeting. The meeting was titled, “IF WE DON’T ACT NOW OUR DAUGHTERS, GRANDDAUGHTERS, WIVES, AND MOTHERS WILL HAVE TO SHARE THEIR RESTROOMS WITH MEN!!” She was terrified, but she did it anyway and spoke out in support of the trans community in a completely unwelcoming environment.

Maybe no minds were changed. Maybe nothing will come of it. But that, to me, is what America is all about—standing up for what we believe in not by rejecting people or turning them away, but by facing each other head on, even when it’s painful.

Engaging in discussion with people you disagree with can be a rewarding experience. Sometimes it’s a disheartening experience, but it’s still worth it. We can’t stop talking to each other, listening to each other, and learning from each other. Even when it doesn’t seem to work—especially when it doesn’t seem to work—we can’t stop trying.

No conviction without information

As a result of trying to stay informed as possible, this election season has been one of little conviction for me. It’s been a classic case of “the more you learn, the less you know.”

I mean, these are huge questions. What is the best way to level the playing field for the middle class? How can we deal with climate change? Let’s not pretend like people don’t spend their lives trying to figure this stuff out. We’re so used to believing what we believe and answering the tough questions with stock answers without pausing to consider alternatives. I think it’s so important to think this stuff through.

Of course, choosing to be informed over being political has its consequences. I probably come off as wishy-washy (or worse, as devil’s advocate!), or as lacking conviction and commitment during a time when it’s most important to have it.

But I don’t think so. The more we temper our views by engaging with diverse perspectives, by resisting the temptation to share things we’re not truly informed on, and by being aware of how narrow a slice of the world we’re getting on our social media feeds, we will be much better equipped to make important decisions when the time comes.

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Amy Shaw

Amy is a part-time teacher, part-time freelance writer and editor, and full-time building a life out of her passions. Always seeking new, fresh ways to improve herself, Amy's approach to personal development has shifted over time: she has been influenced by everything from Tibetan Buddhism, to New Age spirituality, to Mark Manson's "slap you in the face" style of self-help. She claims no status of guru-ship, but she hopes that you can find yourself in her down-to-earth, reflective writing. Amy is Spiraling Up's editor, and she can also be found at Fiction Edit. She loves cooking meals from scratch, drinks espresso multiple times a day, and plays in a rock band called Dr. Martino.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

SW May 23, 2016 at 12:57 pm

Great piece, Amy. Everyone should encourage a more informed electorate. I wonder, though, if the pursuit of obtaining the wealth of information necessary to engage knowledgeably would chill some of the political discourse, and if that’s actually a good thing? That is, if one feels it is imperative to be informed before engaging in a political conversation, that person may never fully engage. Is it more important to have a robust discourse, though based more on opinion, or a more limited, yet informed conversation?

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Amy Shaw May 23, 2016 at 3:37 pm

Great point, SW. I think there’s definitely a saturation point where you have to step back, take stock of what you do know, and vote/act accordingly. Of course, the learning never really stops, but it’s important to strike a balance, I think.

Robust dialogue can be great, but it can also be not-so-great, especially in the context of social media discussions. Is anyone really learning anything or growing if they’re just metaphorically yelling at each other? Certainly, I think everyone could benefit from some training in how to engage in civil, respectful discourse, and perhaps this is even more important than being informed at the end of the day.

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