Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tea and Politics: Making Politics More Like Tea

This post is inspired by Stephane of Tea Masters, who recently posted Review tea like a liberal and brew like a conservative. This post contains a few subtle but humorous cracks at American politics (and possibly French, although I know nothing about French politics), in the course of giving very solid advice about brewing and selecting teas.

But I want to comment on something else in this post, which is an observation Stephane makes:

Politics and tea don't mix well. At a tea gathering (can't use the word tea party anymore!), it's best not to speak politics, a divisive topic.

I've found this statement to not only be true of the world of tea, but of most aspects of life that are not political. But rather than just accepting the divisiveness as politics, I would like to question it, and provide a proposal of a way to re-create politics as a topic that can be positive and empowering to talk about. And, I'd like to use tea culture as a model or analogy of how to achieve this goal.

Why is the subject of politics "divisive" in conversations?

Most of you have probably observed or participated in a conversation about politics that became heated, argumentative, negative, or confrontational. Maybe you were the one who got fired up or frustrated, or maybe you weren't, and either someone else got confrontational with you, or you just observed two people arguing with each other. Once the conversation becomes heated, people stop listening and start talking past each other, often repeating themselves. People's stress level elevates, little of value gets communicated, and the people in the conversation, as well as bystanders, usually feel that the experience is negative or unpleasant.

The natural reaction of many people is to then avoid the topic of politics, reasoning that politics is inherently divisive. This reaction is especially common among people who, like me, value listening and good communication, and want to create a relaxed, positive atmosphere in which everyone feels comfortable and appreciated. It's also a common reaction among people who value their time and don't want to waste their time with unproductive arguments.

But the negative sort of dynamic described above does not happen accidentally--it has certain clear causes, and by understanding these causes we can become empowered to prevent them, and keep the conversation positive. And, contrary to popular belief, the underlying cause is not the topic of politics. It is how we think about politics.

How we think about politics:

Cognitive psychology has actually made some interesting advances that have the potential to explain the influences of thought patterns and thought processes on mood and emotions. If you want to read more on this topic, I go into more depth on this topic in a post on another blog of mine, A Definition of Extremism: Correctly Identifying and Gracefully Handling Extremist Views.

One interesting pattern that is easily observable in these conversations is that the escalation of conflict usually follows the use of black-and-white statements and overgeneralizations, often in the form of labelling. Some of these statements or ideas are spoken out loud, but many of them are held implicitly, in our heads. "All democrats / liberals believe / do X, Y, and Z." or "All republicans / conservatives believe / do X, Y, and Z." Even the simple act of labelling a person or group as "liberal", "conservative", "socialist", or "libertarian" is usually fallacious and unnecessary--most peoples views are complex and cannot be fully described by these labels. Exaggerating statements are another big culprit.

What can we learn from tea?

Tea is generally not a divisive topic. Why? As with politics, the answer lies not in tea itself, but in how we think about tea.

Most of us acknowledge and embrace the fact that different people have different tastes in tea. Even when we associate with tea drinkers who are most similar to us, we regularly come into contact with people who have vastly different tastes from our own. And we do not think it strange or problematic when our tastes differ...in fact, often, we listen to each other's differences of opinions, and make mental notes of them in case we encounter a tea that we think a friend might enjoy more than we do, or if we're looking to give tea as a gift.

But it's not just the types of thoughts and statements we make in association with tea that differs from the heated political arguments described above, it's also the speed and style with which we think about tea and talk about tea. Tea is often embraced during a time of rest or relaxation, a break. Tea is not a focal point of action, it is a liberation from action. When we think more slowly and say less, we can think more carefully, and we can focus on the quality of our thinking and make sure that our thoughts and words flow into constructive ends rather than just causing an escalating argument.

Can't we do politics like tea?

I believe that we can learn how to do politics more like we do tea. Although there may be some cultural barriers and inertia holding us back, I believe it can be done.

We cannot control others' thoughts, but we can control our own. If we are more aware of our own thought processes, and are especially conscious of our word choice in our speech and writing, we can at least refrain from the sort of incendiary statements, such as the false dichotomies, overgeneralizations, exaggerations, and labels, that tend to upset people. We can listen to people and make it more likely that they feel heard and understood, and we can go out of our way to show respect to people who disagree with us, as well as encouraging others who agree with us to show respect to those with different viewpoints.

One of my attempts to move the culture of politics in this direction is the Cazort.net political platform, which I maintain and have developed with the consultation of countless others with a broad range of political viewpoints. If you are interested in seeing what a political platform might look like without the sort of "liberal vs. conservative" dichotomy that exists in the U.S. and many other countries, I would invite you to visit that site. I am constantly refining and updating the ideas contained there, so if you have any comments, suggestions, or criticisms, I'd be most grateful (the site accepts comments there, so please comment on these points there rather than here).

Think about politics like you think about tea:

But most importantly, just give it some thought, and question the notion that politics is inherently controversial. It's not politics, it's how we think about politics. And maybe if we thought about politics more similarly to how we think about tea, many problems in our society would solve themselves.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post, Alex. I found it really useful. I usually think of myself as good at talking reasonably about politics, but I do have a tendency to label people unthinkingly, particularly when they aren't in the room.

    Another flaw I've noticed in my own thinking is that when I disagree with someone, and then they admit that I might be right, I give myself all the credit for arguing well. I fail the acknowledge that they must be listening to me with an open mind.

    I love the idea of thinking about politics in a calmer way. It not only helps people get along, but allows us to relax enough to come up with solutions that are new and creative and silly and stupid and brilliant. It allows for brainstorming. I tend to agree that we would solve a lot more problems that way.