The New York Times' "Angry Uncle Bot" will teach you how to discuss politics with family members you disagree with--calmly and constructively. Use it this holiday season. Better yet, share it with others who may need to learn this skill as well.
It's Christmas and that means family gatherings. For many of us, that also means spending time with relatives who don't share our political views. Who, in fact, think our views are not only mistaken, but immoral and unhuman. Perhaps the result of media brainwashing, or maybe just plain evil.
In these extremely polarized times, many families have simply banned political conversation during the holidays, in an effort to keep the peace between opposing factions. But the House has voted articles of impeachment that it plans to send to the Senate, and campaign season for Democratic presidential hopefuls is rapidly heating up. It's a pretty tough time to try to avoid all political conversations.
Fortunately, you don't have to. There's another, better way, according to Karin Tamerius, MD, a former psychiatrist and founder of Smart Politics, a website that helps people have constructive conversations across the political divide. This year, she's teamed up with the Times to create the "Angry Uncle Bot." You may think of chatbots as annoying entities that pop up on ecommerce sites and fail to answer your questions when you really need help from a human being. But this one is designed to help you learn how to talk politics with people with whom you deeply disagree--and still have a civil, constructive conversation. You might even get someone else to seriously consider your point of view.
"Tell me more about why you feel that way."
Here's how it works: Let's say you lean more Republican in your own political views. You'll be faced with an angry Liberal uncle, who leads off by declaring, "We need Medicare for All." You are offered three possible responses, one that questions his assertion that healthcare is a human right, one that tells him he sounds like a Communist, and one that asks him to tell you more about his opinion. If you pick either of the first two, the bot will gently explain why that's not the best choice and invite you to try again.
The bot will take you through the five steps Tamerius has identified as crucial to having a constructive political conversation when you disagree with someone:
1. Ask. Ask genuine questions which your opponent can honestly answer -- "Tell me more about why you feel that way," not "How can you possibly believe that?"
2. Listen. Don't make the mistake of only pretending to listen to the answer while you're planning your next brilliant statement.
3. Reflect. Say something that makes it clear you've heard and understood what the other person said. In the Medicare for All conversation, it's this: "So, you think the government has a responsibility to make sure every person has basic healthcare, is that right?"
4. Agree. If there are any points of agreement between the other person's position and yours, make sure to note them. For example, if you believe that people who are ill or injured should not be turned away from hospitals even if they can't pay for their treatment, then say so.
5. Share. Finally, if you can, share an experience that helps explain your position. If you want to persuade someone else to your point of view, telling a story is usually the most powerful way to do that.
The point of all this, Tamerius writes, is that "People cannot communicate effectively about politics when they feel threatened." Your angry uncle -- and anyone else who disagrees with you -- is likely to experience your heartfelt declarations about political topics as threatening. That will activate the other person's sympathetic nervous system, she writes, limiting their capacity for "reason, empathy, and self-reflection."
But what if you don't want to persuade your angry uncle or other relative? What if your deepest desire is to speak up, speak out against the injustice you see, and have your voice be heard, come what may? If that's the case, I suggest you join a protest or write an op-ed for your local paper or wait until after your holiday gathering and then post your sentiments to social media. A family gathering, especially during the holidays, is the wrong time for that kind of forceful declaration. If your family is like most, someone went to a lot of trouble to bring everyone together and create a nice family event. It would be very unkind to intentionally create conflict.
So check out the Angry Uncle bot and perhaps send a link to anyone else who might need it. When the holidays are over and everyone had a nice time, you may be very glad you did.