Getting Past the Noise How Not to have a Public Debate, pt. 2

I’m going to just pick up where the last post left off. Here are rules 4, 5, and 6 for how not to engage in public discourse:

(4) Don’t Delegitimize the Process.

Elections have consequences. The Framers set up a convoluted system of checks and balances to ensure that the unruly mob (by which they meant most of us) couldn’t impose its will on the rest of society. This meant that in order to achieve anything of note, you’d have to convince your fellow Americans that it was a good idea. Yay Founding Fathers! But, because they also understood that sometimes people don’t agree and that when people can’t agree they sometimes bludgeon each other to death, they set up a system for how to decide what to do when there’s disagreement. It’s called voting.

‘Impeach Obama’ bumper stickers became available within weeks of the President’s inauguration. This one, from early 2009, brings a few different threads together. The Constitution allows for the removal of a President for ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’.

‘Impeach Obama’ bumper stickers became available within weeks of the President’s inauguration. This one, from early 2009, brings a few different threads together. The Constitution allows for the removal of a President for ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’.

I’m not trying to be sardonic: I’m just trying to point out that in the long view, this whole “let’s vote on it rather than maim each other” thing is quite new. But it only works if both the losing and winning sides stick to their end of the bargain: winners agree to have their power constrained (in our case, by the Constitution and the system it sets up) and losers agree to abide by the will of the majority. Then, in a couple years, we all vote again. Or, if you live in Kenya, thousands of people die immediately in street protests because they don’t like the election results. It really is up to you.

Look, I get it: losing sucks. And though we all prefer it when we win on the things we’re passionate about and only lose on marginal concerns, it doesn’t always work out like that.

When people complain about a policy being ‘shoved down their throats’, what they usually mean is that there was a disagreement on public policy, and then there was an open vote with a clear outcome.

That is how it is supposed to work; it doesn’t help to besmirch the process.

(5) Don’t Oversimplify.

Note that the rule doesn’t say “don’t simplify”. The motto of this blog might as well be “The World is a Complicated Place”, so far be it from me to stand in the way of people trying to build models in order to understand it. I don’t have a lot of details in my walking-around knowledge about my front stairs; instead I have a simple model of how stairs work and that seems to get me up and down them without incident most of the time. Likewise, I can’t explain the ins and outs of the stimulative effects of infrastructure spending when you account for macroeconomic conditions, but I have a rough model that gets me as far down that rabbit hole as I care to go on most days.

The most common way most of us simplify the world around us is through the use of metaphors. (For the pedants in the audience I’ll mention that we’re really usually talking about similes, rather than metaphors, but I’m desperately trying to avoid making reference to heuristics, so cut me some slack.) For example, during the last presidential campaign Obama was fond of likening the economy to a car that had become stuck, and voters could choose between putting the transmission in D(rive) to move forward or R(everse) to return to the ‘failed policies of the past’. Likewise, Republicans like to ask voters to think of the federal budget as a large-scale family budget where expenses have to be brought into line with revenues. Paul Krugman, like just about every other Keyensian, likes to refer to the slow economy as a stalled engine that needs to be pump-primed with stimulus spending.

These are all clever devices and they all serve to highlight an element of the respective arguments that might otherwise be harder to grasp or remember. The problem is that they also ignore important dissimilarities between our economic reality and the images these metaphors conjure. For example, Republicans in 2012 were not espousing the same policies as the the 2000-2008 Bush administration, most families can’t issue debt in their own currency and don’t see their borrowing costs go down when they enter economic straits, and most people don’t really understand how a pump-prime works anyway.

Use metaphors when they’re helpful, but don’t wield them as a cudgel.

On a related note, don’t go all the way down the slippery slope in your argument. You can make almost anything sound like a bad idea if you follow it out to its most absurd conclusion. If we let two women get married, what’s to stop a man from marrying his horse? Well, the same thing that’s to stop the Congress from imposing a tax on you for not eating broccoli: apparently, nothing. That’s not the end of the world, Congress doesn’t want to do that and Jim doesn’t want to marry his mare. We can all live somewhere in the middle, moving every now and then to and fro without ever falling over to the extremes. Every movement doesn’t auger cataclysmic change – just stop watching the History Channel and everything will be okay.

(6) Don’t Forget that Others Disagree with You.

We can become so enthralled by the way we see the world that sometimes we forget that what’s obvious to us might not be obvious to others. And because political actors of all stripes are at least two parts self-interested dissemblers, it’s altogether too easy to conclude that our political opponents are not just wrong, they must be vile as well.

This picture of Ann Coulter is presented without comment.

This picture of Ann Coulter is presented without comment.

This is a mistake. There’s a small fringe of radicals at the periphery of our body politic: white nationalists, revolutionary communists, Oakland Raiders fans. But for the most part, we’re a decently homogenous country underlaid by a core of shared values and principles. That comment might shock some, but they should try living overseas. They’ll discover two things: (a) other countries tend not to be as diverse as the United States, and (b) there’s a set of things that easily sets Americans apart from others. You’ve likely never thought of these things, but they’re at the core of how you view society, the market, family, politics, and fair play. So when someone disagrees with you, it’s not because they secretly know you’re right but are merely trying to weaken everything that is good about home and country. They’re not evil; they just don’t agree with you.


(7) Political Correctness: Just Stop It.

Seriously, I’m tired of the PC back and forth, everyone cut it out. In some parts of the internet, there’s a generally accepted rule that if you make a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis, you automatically lose the argument. Not because you might not have a valid point, but rather because everyone realizes that Nazi comparisons are not exercises in productive conversation. I want to suggest something similar about all the noise we hear about political correctness from time to time. Here’s a guideline: nothing of value should ever go unsaid because it might offend someone, but nothing is of value simply because it might offend someone.

Are there people who go around making the very mention of certain ideas in polite conversation taboo by calling such ideas offensive without being willing to discuss them? Yes, absolutely. Just ask anyone who tries to be critical of Israel. But there are also people who hold offensive ideas and who take umbrage at the notion that you might call them out on that, because somewhere along the way they confused the right to express their opinions with the right to have their opinions valued. The irony is that when someone dismisses your idea out of hand and tries to shut you down and your only response to that is to decry political correctness, you’re doing the same thing you’re complaining about: you too are refusing to actually talk about your ideas!

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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