Traditionally, there have been three topics of conversation to avoid when talking to strangers, or people outside your immediate family: money, politics, and religion. Up until the 1960s, talking publicly about sex was so unthinkable that the authors of etiquette guides would only add this fourth category to their repertoire in the decades that followed. But today, one of these topics stands out among the rest. The election of Donald Trump has definitely stoked the miasma of watercooler debate, but political discussion (often leading to friendly debates, and not-so-friendly arguments) has increased significantly over the past few years, matching the growing amount of partisanship and polarization. This is happening in Canada and Europe as well. Alt-right groups are less afraid to openly parade their racist and distorted ideologies in the streets (see: Charlottesville), and radical leftists are willing to circumvent freedom of speech/expression and even the criminal code to counter their political enemies (see: “punch a Nazi”).
The reason money, politics, religion, and sex were originally considered poor topics of conversation was their close relationship with the private sphere of life. The idea was (is?) that anything you do in private is likely to embarrass or shame others (or, in the case of sex, yourself). With the exception of very rare acts of proselytizing, religion is still very much personal. While money is openly talked about in general terms, most people know to avoid talking about their salary or recent bonus to anyone they aren’t familiar with. Yet, most people feel the need to label themselves as a progressive or conservative, or as a supporter of an official political party. This is even more relevant when we take a look at personal profiles on social media platforms. This shift from private sphere to public sphere is not necessarily a good thing. It’s understandable that people feel strongly about their politics and their political representatives, but I believe that we need to allow this behaviour to regress back into the private sphere, and spend less time fighting our political opponents, and more time learning about the intricacies of government, economics, international relations, etc…
When we cast a vote come election time, the vote might be for a party or an individual politician we adhere to. But the vote itself comes from the individual, not the group. Several years ago, when comedian Jon Stewart still ran The Daily Show (arguably the most successful and ingenious televised satire programmes of all time), he appeared on FOX to debate conservative commentator, Chris Wallace. When accused of being a liberal shill and of constantly bashing the Republican Party (and the myriad of pythonesque political gaffes perpetrated by George W. Bush around that time), he informed Wallace that he was not tied to a particular political party, and that he had voted for Republican, Democratic, and Independent presidential candidates over the years. This has resonated with me since I first saw that interview, leading me to choose particular policies over specific politicians or parties. I’ve noticed that this allows me to act in a much more impartial and pragmatic way when addressing many of these complicated issues.
In short, most people (including myself) don’t have the time or expertise to know everything about politics and governance. An economist might be educated about GDP, a lawyer might better understand campaign finance reform—most of us are experts in nothing at all. So, to put all of our eggs in one basket and label ourselves as “Liberal” or “Conservative” or “NDP” within the public sphere does nothing but increase polarization. Social media exponentially worsens this dilemma.
To combat this trend, I’ve decided to never tell anyone my particular political alignment. In terms of specific issues, I might be pro-choice, but I might also be against CEO salary caps. Maybe I think Brexit was a bad thing, but maybe I also believe that freedom of speech/expression is more important than the freedom to not be offended (note: not an actual freedom, at least not yet). And maybe I’m pro-decriminalization of specific drugs, but against rushed minimum wage rises. At the end of the day, I’ll talk about policy, but you’ll need to guess who I’ll be voting for next election cycle.