It goes without saying that Yale is a politically active campus, especially during an election season. But too often I have seen Yale students waste their breath in an attempt to convince those in the opposition that they are wrong. Sadly, regardless of how well-informed and eloquent the argument, odds are slim that your partisan opponents will change their mind. Instead, your target audience should be people like me: independents who are open to new ideas, even if we have established beliefs. In the future, if you strive to sway our hearts, it’s helpful to keep the following in mind.
First, don’t call the opposition stupid, implicitly or explicitly. Everyone has reasons behind his beliefs. Comments like “I can’t understand who could think like that” make me question your intelligence, not your opposition’s. Similarly, the claim that you “don’t know a single person who supports this” only indicates that you seem to live in a bubble; I’m likely to take the rest of what you have to say with more than just a grain of salt.
More importantly, don’t attack your opponent with a straw man argument. Too often, I’ve heard students justify their beliefs by presenting a bastardized and usually ridiculous version of the other guy’s argument. While I identify as pro-choice, I don’t like when Yale students paint the typical pro-life advocate as a close-minded Bible-thumper. Those people exist but it’s unfair to conflate such fringes with the more polished pro-life arguments I’ve heard, all of which start by first acknowledging the danger of an overreaching government and then explaining their dissent. In the end, it boils down to just giving your political opponent some credit when trying to convince people like me to join your side.
Stop using the fallacy of the excluded middle: proving that your opponent is wrong does not make you any more right. This has been especially common this campaign season with much of the rhetoric concentrating on why the other guy is worse. It’s not particularly difficult to convince me that a Romney presidency would be destructive to gay rights. But that doesn’t actually compel me to vote for Obama. On the other side, even if I agree that Obama has handled the economy poorly, that doesn’t excuse the vagueness of Romney’s economic plan.
Finally, appreciate the importance of context. Yes, Obama said “the private sector is doing just fine” and ”you didn’t build that,” but he made that point in context; a reasonable, well-informed person would understand the point he was making. Likewise, Romney’s comments on “binders full of women” or the 47 percent have different meanings than the sound bites themselves might imply.
This rule also applies to actual statistics. Believe it or not, numbers can be deceptive; just ask any pollster how much framing matters. So when you claim you are giving me “just the facts,” as if they are the smoking gun, don’t be surprised if I remain unconvinced.
As a student studying abroad during an election season, I’m disappointed to have missed out on some of the most critical discourse regarding the direction of American governance. But by studying with a diverse group of international students here in Milan, Italy, I have also come to recognize that our American political ideologies are still well within the confines of a limited liberal democracy that ensures broad individual rights — as well as liberties not found in most other parts of the world. Yes, this sounds childishly simple until you live in a country — an industrialized, First World, European country — whose last president controlled nearly 90% of the media, where professionals often put the cost of bribes into their budgets and where friends tell stories of how their families lost their jobs and were pressured out of town for speaking up against corruption. As much as we perceive Western Europe as a very open and liberal society, many of their economic and public policies would never be tolerated by freedom-loving Americans on either side of the aisle. In short, when given the opportunity to step outside America’s political fray, you begin to realize that the supposedly irreconcilable differences that divide our country ultimately are not so great. Sadly, our discourse doesn’t usually reflect that: trust me when I say that for many of us independents, partisanship sounds the same regardless of whether it’s liberal or conservative.
David Crosson is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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