How to avoid an argument about inequality over the Christmas turkey

Don’t lay the table for a fight. Rawpixel.com via Shutterstock.com

Tis the season to be jolly. And to argue as you tuck into your turkey. In a post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-truth world, with public and political discourse increasingly fractious after a year of political upheavals, it would be surprising if some of those arguments weren’t about politics.

Traditionally, the festive season is a time when poverty is not far from TV screens showing Dickensian movies or coverage of charities such as Crisis at Christmas. Yet, some of the sharpest disagreements can be about poverty and economic inequality – and how politicians should approach it.

There are lots of ways conversations about inequality can go wrong. If you find yourself disagreeing on the extent or causes of inequality, or the best policies to address it, a common strategy is to cite statistics on the assumption that the other person is ill-informed. Smartphones make these easy to access mid-argument.

But rather than persuading the other person, such discussions can often result in your adversary becoming even more convinced of their position – an example of what psychologists call the “backfire effect”. The theory of “reactance” suggests that attempts to persuade – for example by making a one-sided argument – can make people feel their freedom is being constrained and they react to this by asserting their original view more firmly.

Communication theorists and family therapists point to how the dynamics of a disagreement leads each person to escalate the intensity of the argument, each mirroring the other, until it becomes heated.

Out of practice in arguing

These problems may be exacerbated as we increasingly spend time, online at least, in an echo chamber with those with whom we already agree. This means that we risk mis-perceiving how our views line up with those of large sections of the population – and other family members around the dinner table who might have been inhabiting a different echo chamber. It also means that we are becoming less practised in talking with those who may disagree with us.

Try to avoid this reaction. triocean/shutterstock.com

What might we do differently? Researchers suggest that we should try to provide a balanced, rather than one-sided argument. So try to discuss the pros and cons of a particular government policy or idea or try to understand the perspective of the other person in order to explore the assumptions underpinning their position.

For example, when asked to place themselves on a scale of national income distribution, most people locate themselves in the middle, even if they are actually on the top or bottom. If you are trying to persuade someone who is comparatively well off that people in their pay band might need to pay more tax this will obviously be more difficult if they feel that they are already paying a larger share than is actually is the case. This may lead to an argument where a family member already thinks they are paying more tax than is fair when, compared with the general population they are relatively well off.

Understand where they’re coming from

The Essential Partners organisation promotes dialogue across political divides by encouraging people to ask the other person respectfully curious questions such as: “What is at the heart of your political beliefs?” or: “What hopes, concerns and values do you have that underlie your beliefs?” or: “What is it in your life experience that has led you to believe the things you do?”.

Trying to understand why the other person holds the views they do about inequality might help you to discover legitimate fears and concerns underlying their beliefs which might open up different options for the conversation – and explore alternative solutions to address these concerns. It might also enable you to ask a family member or friend about times they have been treated unfairly, which can increase empathy for others facing discrimination. By talking about their own discrimination, they are more likely to be sympathetic to discrimination experienced by others.

Better understanding the other person’s system of values might help you to frame your arguments in a manner more likely to connect with them. This approach is consistent with research suggesting that people tend to see themselves as morally superior to others and that different political groupings might emphasise different moral values.

While liberals might base an argument about welfare benefits or food banks on the importance of equality, conservatives might instead value freedom, patriotism, sacrifice and how deserving a person is. So how could somebody with liberal views frame issues of poverty and inequality in a way which could appeal to conservative values? To start with, they could argue that food banks are a shameful stain on national pride. They could then suggest that this pride could be restored by people making sacrifices to help their fellow citizens through redistributive taxation and a well-funded system of welfare and health and social care.

In trying to engage in respectfully curious conversations, you could even create an atmosphere where you can start to discuss the reasons why people hold apparently contradictory values helping them to feel open enough to discuss these contradictions and possibly even change their minds. Who knows, if we can each develop this skill, it might help avert a dialogue of the deaf at the dinner table over the holiday season.

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