Here are 3 tips for having better political arguments with your crazy uncle this Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is less than two weeks away, and for most of us that means three things:

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  1. Food
  2. Football
  3. Really uncomfortable political discussions—the kind you don’t particularly want to have but feel like you can’t escape because your mom said you have to talk with Uncle Bob this year even if he wants to argue about politics again…

Yay, holidays!

While that conversation with your uncle probably can’t be avoided, it can be less crazy than last year. Political debates can be exciting, but they don’t have to be frustrating and fruitless.

So with that in mind, here are a handful of tips I’ve learned over the years of talking about very controversial subjects in a pretty non-controversial manner.

Give—and get—context for facts

Context is so important, because a lack of it is one of the easiest ways to be misled or demonstrate bad faith in a political discussion.

For instance, just recently I was looking into gun background check laws. Someone had mentioned to me that in states which require universal checks for gun purchases, “38 percent fewer women are shot to death by their partners, 39 percent fewer on-duty police officers are shot and killed, [and] 49 percent fewer people commit suicide with guns.” I was impressed but also surprised by these figures, so I decided to do some digging.

It turns out that the numbers were supplied Everytown for Gun Safety, which is the vaguely named project of former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, of the soda ban and the trans fat ban and the salt ban and—well, you get it. He likes to ban stuff.

So it wasn’t surprising when I noticed one little detail left out as Everytown promoted this data: The scale of the reductions.

See, per FBI stats as listed in the PDF I just linked, law enforcement deaths by guns which are not their own are 39 percent lower in states with universal background checks. That sounds like a big drop. But it’s a drop from 0.15 officers per 100,000 people to 0.09 officers per 100,000 people. Either way, super low. But just listing 39 percent without any other context makes this sound like a bigger change than it really is. After all, it could be dropping from 15,000 dead police officers per 100,000 citizens to 9,000 and it would still be the exact same percentage decline of 39 percent.

That’s not to say that those few lives don’t matter—they matter a lot—but this sort of perspective matters, too (especially when it’s being used to support serious restrictions on constitutional rights). The other two stats are on a similarly small scale, but you’d never know it from the big, dramatic percentages Everytown is using.

So when you’re having a political discussion, don’t use misleading, context-less facts like this—and don’t let someone else use them on you, either. It’s dirty politics, and at best it gets you an unfair win over a misinformed debate partner.

Learn, avoid, and point out logical fallacies

Probably because it’s rarely taught in high schools (a huge mistake, by the way), many Americans seem to think of logic as a rarified academic subject which is too complicated for them to study on their own.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Informal logic in particular is incredibly accessible for just about anyone, and reading up on the most common logical fallacies will help you think more clearly in formulating your political arguments—and picking apart your opponents’ ideas.

Pay attention to ethical perspectives

Ethics—which is simply how we make decisions about moral issues—is a field which can seem even more intimidating than logic, but here too a very basic introduction can make a huge difference in helping us to think clearly about political arguments.

There are lots of different ways to do ethics, but in politics most ethical arguments will be based in one of two foundations which I’ll grossly oversimplify here for the sake of space: consequences or principles.

Ethics which focus on consequences are interested in the end result: What will work well? What can we realistically do to produce the desired outcome?

By contrast, ethics which focus on principles are interested in making the most morally upright choice: What is the right thing to do? How can we stick to our convictions?

Neither of these perspectives will ever be eliminated from politics, and that’s not a bad thing. Frequently, we need input from both sides; we have to consider not only what is right but also what is effective. (Of course, I’d suggest that far too many people in Washington are only interested in what’s effective for lining their personal pocketbooks, but that’s another discussion).

The key takeaway here is that when you’re making or hearing any political argument, pay attention to whether it’s based in consequences or principles. Then, think about it from the opposite ethical perspective. Sometimes this may lead you to strengthening your case with a new argument. Sometimes it may not.

Either way, you’re now better-informed—and maybe even better prepared to convince Uncle Bob to change his mind about something more important than which pie turned out the best this year.

What do you think?

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