A Brief Discussion of Other People’s Politics

I had a post all prepared about how clean running water is clearly more important than sex, because we put up with shit from plumbers that we would never take from a potential mate – not calling when they say they will, not showing up when they say they will, etc. But then the plumber showed up in just the nick of time, hooray!

Instead, I’m going to list professions the practitioners of which seem to (or are conventionally supposed to) feel unusually free to share their political opinions:

  • Plumbers
  • Taxi drivers
  • Plumbers
  • Plumbers

The last time I dealt with a plumber, he told me all about how women were too delicate to fix toilets while I flabbergasted politely; this time, the plumber and I engaged in a short ritualized dance of Liberal Scientist vs. Climatological “Skeptic”. And the thing is, after years of blogging I’m getting pretty good at figuring out the underlying assumptions in a person’s position. I can immediately leap from “What about all the other scientists who think it’s hogwash?” to Aha! We should talk about scientific consensus; I blame the cheezy point-counterpoint structure of media narratives and respond with some completely asinine mumble about how Bjorn Lomborg is really not a sufficient counterpoint to the vast majority of serious climatologists, which doesn’t help at all. In a long drawn-out argument I can usually hold my own (though I’m still much better at writing than talking) but I can’t engage in brief politlcal discussion worth even half a shit.

These conversations always leave me feeling dispirited. I hate the way they reinforce the dominant narrative of liberal vs. conservative, each too fixed in their own views to really listen or persuade. But, I don’t want to have a respectful political dialogue in which both participants truly open themselves to the possibility of understanding and change every time my faucet is clogged; true dialogue takes too damn long to just engage in willy-nilly. I want to imply the possibility of such dialogue, provide a hint of what it might look like, maybe plant the seed of one good argument, and exit gracefully with a working sink.

So, Gentle Readers, are you good at creating such conversations, and keeping them short? How do you do it?

One not-so-short approach I’ve found is to ask people about when and how they came to their current politics, and then you can circle back to persuasive rhetoric when you tell your own story. Another is to shift to a meta-discussion of how difficult it is to talk politics in a useful way – this is both common ground and evidence of your good intentions. But getting a good transition to neutral postures when someone bluntly asks what you, as an earth scientist, think about global warming… sigh.


  1. Rew wrote:

    I have this problem sometimes too. My solution has usually been to learn how to fix the damned things myself. Other times I’m apparently just too big/scary/goffy/sullen to seem interested in small talk.

    I don’t think that many people want to be persuaded. On the other hand, your plumber actually asked about global warming. He was, therefore, starting from the less knowlegdeable position. From there I don’t know. I did get awards in forensics…but that was a long time ago. I’m better written too.

  2. Lab Lemming wrote:

    When I was hitch-hiking around the western US in my well-spent youth, I once got a lift from a woman who, when she found out that I was a geologist, told me that she believed California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho were about to slide into the ocean. She was very concerned, and wanted me to explain this impending catastrophe. While this has nothing to do with politics, and little to do with the topic at hand, the point I am trying to make is that normal people can have an unexpected perception of how the Earth operates, to say nothing of how scienists actually approach geological problems.

  3. Dr. Shellie wrote:

    Thanks for the link! Hmm… how about offering up just one seemingly apropos-of-nothing, yet actually incredibly relevant and world-view shaking fact? Like tell the guy who says women can’t fix toilets, “Oh, do you think you’ll be finished before 5? I have to leave to go this REALLY COOL arc-welding class I’m taking through adult ed.”

  4. Stentor wrote:

    I don’t think that many people want to be persuaded.

    I think this is quite true. In a lot of cases (in my experience especially with older men) the point is for them to tell you their opinion. From a social science research perspective I love this kind of person, since I just want to hear what people think. But their outlook doesn’t lend itself easily to dialogue.

  5. Anna wrote:

    In the UK there is a website called http://www.ratedtradesmen.com which I have used to get a plumber (and also a tiler and an electrician!). You use it to get recommended local tradesmen and then you leave FEEDBACK on the website FOR ALL TO SEE. One way of incentivising them to get on with the job and not air their opinions all day long to you?!

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