Why is political debate such a volatile affair? It usually seems pointless and even counterproductive. Rarely does anyone convince anyone else of anything. Even worse, these discussions tend to become quite emotional and heated; they seem to end with everyone more solidified in their existing opinion, except now they are also angry with the opposition. For these reasons many people simply opt to avoid political conversation altogether. What is the point if we are just going to create conflict and perhaps even damage relationships?
Consider that we can debate almost anything else (except maybe religion) relatively safely. We make arguments for our musical taste, the merits of a particular film, the best city in which to live, fashion, etc. People may have strong feelings about these things, but all except the most intolerant recognize that everyone is different and that we simply aren’t going to agree on these things. We may even good-naturedly tease each other for the “silly” music or movies our friends like, but it is highly unlikely that we will become angry over any of this.
But what if I argue that a particular movie isn’t just great, but that it is so great that everyone should have to watch it. It’s not just that the themes the film explores are relevant and well developed through the plot, it’s that the message is so important that people (including you) should have to watch it whether they want to or not. Whoah! All of a sudden our conversation assumes a very serious tone. You may very well be in a state of shock or disbelief at this assertion. What do I mean that people should be required to watch a movie that I like? This is craziness! What gives me the right to forcefully impose my will on people that way?
We may roll our eyes or shake our heads in disgust when we see another subscribe to, or do something that we perceive as absurd, but that is usually the end of it. However if that person attempts to impose their viewpoint on us, we rightfully become defensive. “You can do what you want, but count me out,” would be our response. But if a man corners us in an alley and tells us to, “watch this move or else”, this is no longer a simple matter of differing opinions about a movie; we are now dealing with the use of force. Who wouldn’t feel violated in this situation? This is clearly an injustice, and every sane person knows that it is.
So what does this example have to do with political debate and angry conflict? This is what:
The political debate is the process of determining against whom, and for what reasons force will be used.
Even if the tone of the discussion seems civil and cordial, beneath everything said is the implicit threat of force. Our brains are wired to engage the “flight or fight” response when we perceive a threat. So it is impossible not to get angry during political debate.