Which Side Are You On? Thinking Critically About Politics

Support an idea, not an ideology.

Posted Jul 06, 2018

When I first came of age where I could legally enjoy a beer, my father gave me one piece of advice for conducting myself in a pub: “don’t talk about religion or politics.” I always considered this a good piece of advice and still do. Nevertheless, I’ve often seen people disregard this guideline, much to their detriment.

Politics are a funny thing. They’re like religion in that both reflect a standpoint or perspective regarding the world around us that is based on some ideology. However, where it’s not (largely) acceptable to criticise someone for their religious beliefs, it has become a past-time for many to do so with regard to politics.

I can’t seem to scroll more than five posts on any social media platform without seeing some politically-based sentiment. “This man is an idiot” or “This woman is evil”. It’s no longer taboo to discuss politics in public—never mind force-feeding it to anyone who will listen, whether they agree with the stance or not. It strikes me that something has changed in the public’s obsession with politics over the past couple of years. Perhaps it has something to do with psychological mechanisms similar to those discussed in one of my previous posts on virtues, values and moral bullying; but, nevertheless, it appears that lines are drawn more assuredly now than ever before — it seems you have to be a conservative or a liberal.

Politics are useful in facilitating the change we want to see in the world; and as much as some would like to avoid political discussion, it needs to be engaged from time to time. However, what I used to enjoy about a political debate with open-minded thinkers was that there were no sides per se. Everyone’s goal was to develop an idea that would achieve the best outcome, regardless of sides — we didn’t care about what party you supported. If it was a good idea, it was supported. That was the main thing—supporting an idea, not an ideology. If a candidate, regardless of party, promoted multiple ideas that you supported, then chances were that you would, in turn, support them. But now, it seems like the person matters less and what really matters is the party they represent.

I cannot deny that my perception and recent experience may result from the algorithms built into my social media that dictate what posts I see (and perhaps our echo chambers influence the reinforcement of our political stances), but what I do see is antagonism between tribes of liberalism and conservatism. I don’t support any particular party. I am neither conservative nor liberal. Sure, I personally support ideas from both camps, but such support doesn’t make me one or the other. With that, isn’t it rational to consider both sides?

When I provide my writing workshop to students or teach argumentation, I make the point that arguments are not necessarily heated debates—an argument is the presentation of a claim followed by a network of supports and rebuttals that help facilitate either acceptance or rejection of the claim. In order to successfully argue, both sides of the argument require appropriate consideration. If you were to think critically about all politically-oriented topics, it is unlikely that you will whole-heartedly side with liberals (or conservatives) all of the time (or even most of the time). In politics, you should be able to ‘pick and mix’ policies you support, regardless of the party.

Like argumentation in critical thinking, political stances are ill-structured problems. There is no 100% correct answer. Moreover, to reiterate, politics are a lot like religion—a standpoint or perspective regarding the world around us that is based on some ideology or belief system. Critical thinkers know that beliefs are not facts—beliefs influence our attitudes and opinions, but they do not alter facts (assuming such facts have been established).

We must realise that politics would not exist if one side was always ‘correct.’ Over time, the ‘wrong’ side would have been weeded out and the ‘correct’ escalated in standing. But this has not happened. There is constant back and forth in favour of the disparate parties. So, what does that tell us about critical thinking in politics?

Sides are often drawn based on belief and opinion, but not necessarily fact; and yes, it is often difficult to derive fact because extant knowledge is not always available. But, if we truly care about a topic, we need to think about it critically; and if we find that our stance is consistent with that of a particular party, we must not take for granted that the party is right about other topics.

Don’t get me wrong—I'm not saying that the concept of political affiliation is easy to fully understand, let alone try and 'fix'. Politics, like so many other things in life, are not black-and-white—there are many shades of grey; but that is exactly why whole-heartedly following a side, be it left or right, should be selected against—because life isn't black-and-white. Neither conservatives nor liberals have all the answers.

The point is that in order to enhance our critical thinking about politics, we need to forget about parties, agendas and sides. Pick a topic that is important to you. Think critically about it. Make a decision. Alter said decision in light of new compelling evidence. Pick a new topic. Repeat.