04/02/2012 03:21 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2012

My Secret Weapon: One Simple Rule Destroys Brainless Political Banter

Politics has a way of coming up in conversation. Ordinarily, I welcome a little friendly dialogue about the candidates, the issues, and the ads. The problem is, discussions lately seem a lot less friendly, and a lot less like dialogue. And they're not just coming up. More and more people seem intent on roping others into emotional, one-sided conversations with strong moralistic overtones, based only upon their own agendas.

If you're one of those people, you should know that I have a secret weapon which protects me from this sort of lunacy. So move on. Pick someone else. Because regardless of which side of the fence you occupy -- or which fence you deem important -- if you come at me with this kind of brainless banter, it's not going to work out.

Of course, as with any good secret weapon, you won't see mine coming until it's too late. At first, you'll just find our conversation annoying.


To begin with, I won't agree with you.

When you emotionally and emphatically express your morally justified opinion, you're not seeking dialogue. What you really want is agreement. The fact that we're all more comfortable surrounded by people who agree with us is old news -- and, it's why web giants like Google and Facebook have become so skilled at presenting us with content supporting our viewpoint. (Here's a video about that.) We love to be told that we're right, and the internet has spoiled us: The mainstream, the fringe, and the wacky alike all find reinforcement on the web. And now, we expect it in real life.

Agreement feels good. Unfortunately, it further entrenches people in simplistic positions, and it doesn't lead to real solutions for complex issues. So even though I might concur with what you're saying, if you come at me with brainless banter, I'm not going to agree.

It gets worse: I also won't disagree with you.

This may seem less annoying, but trust me, it's not. Your polarized point of view -- "if you're not with us, you're against us" -- is basically a conversational demand designed to give me only two options. If I won't say that you're right, then I'm supposed to say that you're wrong. Once I do, I provide the perfect opportunity for you to pull out your supporting information, dig in your heels even deeper, tell yourself that I'm misinformed, and commence feeling justified and superior. In battle, in politics, and in social media, animosity strengthens positions.

The internet has spoiled us here too, goading us toward this sort of thinking. After all, one of the most exciting comments you can leave on a blog or Facebook post is vehement disagreement: It captures attention, it's fun to write, and it usually earns a response. But simple dualistic thinking doesn't lead to real solutions for complex issues. So even though I might be opposed to what you're saying, if you come at me with brainless banter, I'm not going to disagree.

It gets worse yet: I'll ask you to explain an opposing position.

Now this is really annoying. When you've finally finished ranting, just when you think I'm about to reinforce your opinion by either agreeing or disagreeing with it, I'm going to turn around ask you for a different one.

At first you'll laugh, and try to make a joke of my request. But I'm going to keep pressing. "Wait!" I'll exclaim. "Surely we could find a few people as intelligent and thoughtful as you, but with the opposite perspective. How would they justify their position? How is their information different from yours? Why don't they have access to the information you have? Why don't you have access to the information they have?"

Now you see my secret weapon: I won't share my opinion until you've convinced me that you understand both sides of the issue well enough to have formed yours. This breaks me free of the conversational rules you were trying to impose. You don't get the encouraging feeling of my agreement, you don't get the exhilarating feeling of my disagreement, and you can't proceed under either of your planned scenarios. Really, my secret weapon leaves you with only three options:

First, you can keep reiterating that the "other guys" are dumb, misinformed, and unethical. But this makes it apparent that you don't care much for understanding the situation -- you just want everyone to do what you want -- which puts you in the company of two-year-olds. The more apparent that becomes, the more likely you are to walk away from our conversation, and my secret weapon will have stopped you in your tracks.

Second, you can set aside your black-and-white dogmatism and your corresponding indignant emotions, and think critically and carefully about the other side of your issue. If you started out seeking real dialogue, there's no problem here, and our discussion will continue without a hitch. But if brainless banter was your goal, my secret weapon will again have stopped you in your tracks.

Third, you can simply decide that I must disagree with you, even though I won't say so, because I have not yet actively agreed. That will allow you to apply the "misinformed" label to me, and relax into the fact that my stupidity and lack of candor further justify your position. And if you're very lucky, and particularly inattentive, you'll leave it at that. Of course, if you're less lucky, and a bit more attentive, you'll have a gnawing sense that something went wrong in our interaction, but you won't know what. And if you're really unlucky, and relatively clever, you'll realize with embarrassment that you never even discovered my opinion because you didn't finish elaborating yours. But no matter how it turns out for you, as you can see, our conversation will have ended without drawing me into the fray. My secret weapon, once again, will have stopped you in your tracks.

So, I hope you see that brainless banter is powerless against my secret weapon. If you're intent on starting it, please do us both a favor and don't choose me. Let's just talk about business, or about our families, or about the weather. Have you seen any good movies lately?

On the other hand, if you're trying to replace brainless banter with intelligent conversation too, I invite you to duplicate my secret weapon and make it your own. Use it constantly and unflinchingly. If you do -- and if enough of us demand intelligence in place of banter -- maybe we can begin to squelch the brainlessness more permanently.