How Social Conditions and Personal Experience Shape Political Conversation

[This post is part of a series on 1-on-1 organizing conversations.]

There’s a hard pill to swallow for people who first get interested in radical politics: No one cares what you think. “Oh, so you don’t like white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy?” For the most part, nobody cares.

I’ve heard countless instances of someone expressing a radical belief to others with the hope of being agreed with or at least sparking an engaging discussion. But most commonly we are met with blank stares and utter disinterest, and we falsely take this as evidence that nobody cares about social issues or that there’s nothing we can do to change people’s minds.

This kind of experience runs counter to a lot of mainstream discourse about how ideas in the abstract are really important and that all you have to do is say them out loud to spread them around to others. The preeminent liberal metaphor of the “marketplace of ideas” says that ideas compete with each other in the sphere of public discourse and the better ideas come out on top. The implication is that with merely the correct arguments and the right ideas, people can change the world. This belief, in one form or another, is the dominant liberal mode of thinking about social change. At the macro-level this manifests in the idea that the leaders with the right ideas will be elevated to positions of authority and then will make the best decisions, and at the micro-level this manifests in the idea that people you talk to will agree with good ideas just by being exposed to them. 

Unfortunately, there is no ethereal marketplace where every abstract idea is evaluated according to criteria of objective truth, where everyone then shops around for the best ideas in their pure form. Rather ideas are embedded in social and material contexts that determine their meaning and potency. Politicians with lots of corporate lobbying money frequently defeat politicians with good ideas, and people respond to ideas not according to some abstract measure of their quality but rather through the lens of social relationships, personal experience, and perceived self-interest. Ideas are then only made real in the world through their concrete effects. The world is not a contest of ideas, but a contest of power. 

So having the “right” ideas by itself isn’t worth much, which is why neither the Nobel Prize Committee nor your coworkers care much what you think. As organizers and social movement participants, to actually advance political ideas we have to engage people not just as minds suspended in the clouds of pure thought but as many-dimensional beings, whose life is informed at least as much by their social relations and economic position as by abstract ideas.

In a companion blog post I talk about specific tactics and methods of political conversation, while here I aim to analyze the way political ideas exist within specific social contexts, how personal experience shapes our beliefs, and how to create the right dynamics for spreading the ideas we hold dear.

The “Who” of Political Conversation

While the marketplace of ideas makes no distinctions about who we should engage with (i.e., anyone can buy or sell from anyone else), taking account of people’s social existence helps us determine who is more worthwhile to engage with in political conversation.

Three factors are key. The first factor is your personal relationship with people. Those you have some kind of social relationship with are more likely to take you seriously and be interested in talking with you about complex and potentially touchy subjects. Complete strangers have no real reason to invest energy or expose vulnerability to someone they are unlikely to ever interact with again. If you have a lot of extra time you wanna throw in the trash while having no political effect, arguing with strangers in person or on the internet is a pretty good way to achieve that goal.

The second factor is the degree of shared life conditions. Labor unions have the potential to be very powerful precisely because they unite many people who have very similar conditions at work. Other kinds of shared conditions include those who live in the same apartment complex or neighborhood, those with similar relations to patriarchy and white supremacy, those with similar hobbies, and so on. People living and working under shared conditions have common points of reference, often have shared grievances, and have implicit shared interests in making things better.

The third factor is the potential of people to take action together to make their lives better in some respect. This is a factor that consists of the overlap of the prior two factors, as those who you are in relationship with and those who you have shared conditions with are the people you are most likely and well-positioned to take action with to create some change in your community. Labor unions, tenant unions, community groups, these are the organizational forms that can breed radical thought and action. 

Of course there will be plenty of coworkers or neighbors who fulfill these criteria who are not interested in engaging you or who are so stuck in their mindset that they won’t be swayed. That’s always true, but at least when these criteria are met you’ll have a better chance of having productive political conversation and those conversations are more likely to lead to people getting involved in ways that create social change.

Some people who may seem strategic to talk politics may not be when the three factors are considered more closely. The classic case is family members. They are people we often have strong social ties to, but often there’s a wide divergence on the factor of shared conditions. While people talking to their family about social issues can be a good way to spread some ideas, when broader life conditions differ significantly they are not as strategic a target for political conversation. 

Many people, myself included, end up expending lots of energy in political conversation with family in large part because many people spend a lot of time around their families. But the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve realized that this is just not a particularly strategic political intervention for me because I have a different life from the rest of my family so it’s difficult for us to relate. While I continue talking politics with them, I try not to take energy away from more useful interventions or get too bent out of shape when family conversations about politics don’t go as I hoped they would. You’re much more likely to have productive conversations with those who meet all of the above criteria, like coworkers or other tenants in your building who you’re friendly with.

Political Expression Is Less Important than the Social Dimensions of your Conversation

The market of ideas suggests that you put your idea out on the market of reason and its validity will naturally be worked out by the invisible hand of the market. The quality of the idea alone determines its success and all you have to do is express it. This focus on ideas in the abstract weakens our ability to think strategically, which requires paying close attention to our social relationships and shared conditions.

When people get stuck in political conversation, it’s often because the expression of their ideas as they make sense inside their own head has no connection with the way the idea makes sense or not in someone else’s head as informed by their own unique personal history. Baffled that the other person doesn’t immediately understand these ideas the way they do, they resort to repeating the idea over and over. As obvious as this may seem, everyone is different, so much so that the bare expression of political ideas is almost totally worthless on its own. No one cares that you don’t like cops or you think everyone should have healthcare or whatever. It just won’t register with anyone else, and we should expect it won’t unless we put the effort into really connecting with someone.  

Assuming the three social-material factors listed above are met to some degree, you have to put effort into relating ideas to people’s lived reality. It can help to articulate how your own lived experience has shaped your views on an issue and then explore with your conversation partner what their own experience has been on an issue. When they offer interpretations of those experiences that you think are mistaken, try to offer a different way of looking at it or how it played out differently in your own experience (the companion blog post goes into more specific details about how to do this).

It’s easy for political conversations to get abstract and into the domain of thought that’s extremely removed from people’s day-to-day lives and where people’s preconceived ideas are strongest (“so-and-so politician who I don’t like said this” or “entitlements are bankrupting our country”). Trying to counter their ideas by responding with your own abstract generalities (“well that politician is bad because they did this other thing” or “the government needs to take care of people”) most often triggers a back-and-forth on terrain where people’s perceived loyalties are entrenched. Rather than just repeating the same arguments that drone on endlessly on TV news channels, you constantly have to try to bring the conversation back down to earth, back to their and your own lived experience, back directly to those immediate things that they and you care about. Whether the discussion is about something large in scale or small, general or specific, try to keep it tethered to the concrete where people are more likely to be able to open up new lines of thought and challenge old beliefs.

For the record, I make these mistakes plenty too and have come to quickly recognize that glaze in someone’s eye when they lose interest in my telling them what I think or the defensive tension in someone’s brow when we start to fling empty political generalities at each other. The best thing to do when you recognize this is to step back and find ways to get them to speak about their experience with the issue and engage them at that level. The worst thing to do, which is the default response, is to take someone’s disinterest or defensiveness as a sign that you have to try harder to convince them and talk at them even more and tell them what you think in even stronger terms. Like a pesticide to the pollinating bees in a field, this destroys growth instead of fostering it.

The Proportions of Political Conversation

Despite my railing against it above, when it’s done right, telling people what you think is helpful in very small doses. You don’t want to hide your beliefs, but the basic points of one’s beliefs can usually be stated in a few words. Avoid repeating what you think over and over or trying to map it out in all it’s little details. 

Telling people why you think what you think, i.e. the reasons behind it, can be effective in small doses. Giving reasons for your ideas helps people see why those ideas make sense, but focusing too heavily on reasons in the abstract can make them seem irrelevant to the real world. Telling people the personal and concrete experiences behind why you think what you think is good in medium doses. Experiences are the beams and pillars of one’s larger worldview. Just like the weight-bearing features of a building are both invisible and what hold it together, personal experiences are among the least visible aspects of people’s political beliefs but are the concrete pillars and steel beams that undergird them.

The rank of importance of 1. experiences, 2. reasons, 3. beliefs in political conversation applies in the same order to the other person as it does to yourself. So the most effective thing to do is to ask people about their own experiences and what they think about them. The next effective thing is to ask people for the reasons why they think what they think. Occasionally you want to ask people what they think, i.e. the direct statement of their beliefs, if it isn’t coming up naturally. 

All of these things are good in political conversation as long as you keep them all in the right proportions. Here’s some back-of-the-envelope estimates of what percentages of your conversation should be devoted to.

Asking people about and listening to them talk about:

  • … their experiences. 40%
  • … the reasons why they think what they think. 20%
  • … what they think. 10%

Telling people about:

  • … your experiences. 18%
  • … the reasons why you think what you think. 10%
  • … what you think. 2%

You’ll notice I made the percentages add up to fit the 70/30 rule, the heuristic used in organizing conversations that says you should spend 70% of your time listening and asking questions and 30% of your time talking. I know it is rather silly to assign precise percentages to each element of political conversations, but I do think this helps illustrate how all of these elements interact and work together. 

Telling people what you think is of marginal importance relative to every other part of political conversation. It only meaningfully contributes to the conversation in a context in which everything else is given the greater and proper weight.

The liberal discourse of the marketplace of ideas places all the emphasis on the beliefs and the reasons and very little on personal experience. Oddly enough, personal experience and our specific interpretation of what it means for us is the actual dominant contributor to what we believe. The fact that the most important thing is so displaced in common discourse is the main reason why so much political conversation is so frustrating to so many people.

If we learn to value our own and other people’s experiences as essential parts of our beliefs, our conversations will not only be more meaningful to all involved but also more productive. When this is combined with an awareness of the social dynamics of political conversation, radicals can break out of the inertia and isolation that we so often face when we first try to give voice to our ideas.

2 thoughts on “How Social Conditions and Personal Experience Shape Political Conversation

  1. One cannot change their understanding and way of speaking because of others, overall. At work, you may have to adjust, to fit in, but best to find work where others are akin. I never change who I am. What I see, learn from others, understand, and realize (Often from experience and others.) is what it is. Whether others accept, that’s up to them. That makes for better real conversation. However, I have read of one fellow who adapted to crowds in order to get them to see what he understood. But another always talked plainly.


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