Huebner: The Art of Ideological Pong

If you can’t win the game, you can at least understand your opponent.

by Julia Huebner | 2/16/17 12:30am

As anyone close to me knows, I love talking politics.

Yes, I’m that person. Talking politics is verbal fencing and a political debate is a game of pong.

Instead of sinking cups, the politically savvy highlight logical fallacies. Rather than making saves, we introduce an irrefutable fact.

It’s all a game, a duel. And like most competitions, there are polite and impolite ways to play.

The 2016 election taught us how to play dirty. Professional politicians know the rules too well: smear ads, personal jabs, name-calling and lies are just tools that appeal to our emotions.

At Dartmouth, we’re taught to play nice. Instead of seeing Republicans as inherently wrong, I’ve come to see Republican ideals as a result of one’s identity and life experiences. I can’t blame people because they’ve had different experiences than I have. Because I’ve experienced underhanded moves from political conservatives, I can empathize when an outspoken Republican friend complains about intolerant liberals.

Last Monday, I had the cleanest political debate with a friend. The issue on the table: is transgenderism an identity or a mental illness?

I contend that it’s an identity; my friend claimed that it’s an illness.

Unlike many political discussions, our conversation was polite and empathetic. I tried to see where my friend was coming from. He explained that one of his childhood friends is transgender, and I tried to appreciate his perspective and experience. Our anecdotes were bolstered by facts; when common knowledge was exhausted, I pulled out my computer and pulled up JSTOR articles.

“‘Research has shown,’” I read aloud, “‘that discrimination and victimization are related to several measures of psychological distress such as anxiety and depression that in turn, may increase one’s risk of attempting suicide’ according to this study.”

We tried to out-reason each other and ended up getting lost in semantics.

After three hours, I left feeling exasperated: I made a clear case backed by facts, so why couldn’t I “win”?

Here’s the thing: you can’t win politics. It’s maddening to try and it leave you feeling burnt out.

Of course, I should have realized that. I came in with a clear — liberal — agenda. My friend represented a conservative school of thought. It was a debate, and I was trying to win.

Talking politics is like playing pong, except for one critical difference: there can never be a clear winner in politics.

Presidents are elected, and Congresses pass bills, but no political ideology has ever been accepted as universally true, moral or correct in American history. I doubt one ever will be so long as we remain a democracy.

Of course, there’s political polarization on Capitol Hill. Party leaders see their ideals as a fight of good against evil. When I worked on my first political campaign as a high school junior, I distinctly remember what my boss told a gaggle of interns.

“This,” he said, “Is a fight of good versus evil.”

Was he being cheeky and grandiose? Probably. But underneath the showman’s remark was a nugget of truth: people want their basic values validated. That’s why I’m one of the few (probably rude) people who will bring up politics at the dinner table: I realize that attacks on my political views are not attacks on me as a person. If I’m personally smeared, whoever is debating with me has simply run out of facts.

Although I hated the frustration I felt after my healthy debate, that feeling is a gift. When I was in high school, I thought that us liberals had a monopoly on morality. Democrats were in the right; Republicans were at best ignorant and at worst racist, homophobic, sexist, ablest and a host of other -isms and -ists. If you were one of the few outspoken Republicans on campus, everyone knew it, and not in a positive way.

I knew Dartmouth would be more open to conservative ideology than my high school was. At first, that fact scared me. I was worried that I would sail through my time here, too bogged down in homework and club meetings to stop and debate.

On the contrary, I’ve made extra time to assert my values. I’ve also learned that the left is not unequivocally right. Debate, rather than preaching to a sounding board, has firmed my own positions and given me the chance to empathize with my ideological opposites.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m thankful for the Dartmouth Republicans. You are a privilege to play against.