Are Americans Afraid Of Talking About Politics?
If I were waiting at the subway station for my train to arrive and a complete stranger adjacent to me turned and asked what I thought the future of environmental policy would look like, two thoughts would cross my mind:
1) Very bleak; and 2) Why are they asking me about this?
Having spent most of my life in England, I’ve noticed a subtle cultural disparity between the way that the Americans and the British talk about politics.
For Americans it seems to be a much more intimate subject — something you talk about with friends, family, or maybe a close colleague. Certainly not a stranger.
Whilst in England, at least in my experience, it is much more casual. Politics is one of the most popular topics of small talk; a subject that can spark a conversation between two people with very little in common.
It is completely natural to debate with a stranger over the country’s latest military escapade or a member of Parliament who was caught enjoying a holiday at the taxpayer's expense.
I’m not trying to suggest that all Americans avoid conversation on this subject or that I have never been able to have meaningful small talk with a stranger, but to me it seems that politics, social issues, and current events are often discussions that are saved for secure situations.
Maybe Americans are more aware of how these discussions can become heated and intend to avoid making others uncomfortable? Maybe it is just a tradition rooted deep in American culture? Maybe it's just another charming oddity unique to the British?
Sometimes it’s nice to talk about things with less weight than the future of democracy or the controversies of the electoral college.
There are moments when I’m grateful not to feel obligated to listen to a terribly boring and painfully uninvited speech on how the system of voting has changed over the years; however, there have been occasions when I’ve felt that the lack of causal political discussion fosters a restricted environment.
I became acutely aware of one of these strange situations that called for attention but remained strikingly devoid of debate during my junior year of High School.
The day after the Ferguson decision was when I began to question the way that these difficult times were approached. Around the country people were rioting over the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, an armed police officer, who shot Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager.
People were heartbroken over the failure of the law to bring justice to this crime which represented recognition of a much more sinister pattern of police brutality and discrimination.
Yet, in my High School it felt just like any other day. Aside from a couple of kids who had scrawled #BlackLivesMatter onto their arms or T-shirts, everyone was acting as though nothing had happened.
If we don’t know how to talk about these problems, then how are we supposed to solve them?
As was shown in the aftermath of the Ferguson decision and in the result of the election, Americans aren’t afraid to rally and protest and cry out for what they think is right. But casual and healthy discussion, that is not charged by tensions or biases, seems to be much more of a rarity in my experience.
It’s interesting to consider why it is so much difficult to turn to our neighbour and say we’re upset than it is to scream it.