Getting Past the Noise How Not to Have a Public Debate, pt. 1

Republicans have recently floated the idea that Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh should be a moderator in the debates leading up to the 2016 Presidential election. I can think of no way in which this might be a bad idea or might detract from a productive conversation.

Republicans have recently floated the idea that Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh should be a moderator in the debates leading up to the 2016 Presidential election. I can think of no way in which this might be a bad idea or might detract from a productive conversation.

Lately, it seems that Americans can’t talk to each other without deteriorating into name calling, where ‘lately’ is an undefined period of time anywhere from 4 to 226 years. Witness the fiasco of the sequester everyone assured us would never actually be implemented. I’ve written elsewhere on how – cover your children’s ears – it just might be the case that when government is broken in a democracy, it might be the fault of voters every bit as much as of politicians. I’m not prepared to give you any brilliant solutions, but I’ll hazard a few suggestions on how to marginally improve things.

Since the most important piece of advice when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging, here are six rules, in two installments, for how to have a public debate. Following these rules won’t lead to Nirvana, but since self-governance isn’t a project in everlasting enlightenment, we won’t let ourselves be held up by such nit-picking.

(1) Don’t Make it Personal.

I know it’s fun to make it personal. It feels right. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that our ancestors were huddled around a campfire, trying to figure out how to not be eaten by big cats on the African Savannah. In those days, if someone disagreed with you it was probably the case that they had already offended you by maiming a draft animal in some misguided attempt to over plow a field. Humans are highly personal creatures. We want to feel like we know our leaders, we want to relate to them, we want to revile them when we disagree with them.

Stop it. It makes no sense.

If a certain politician is a discredited hypocrite, it doesn’t mean his argument is wrong. By all means, don’t vote for him. Don’t contribute to his campaign. But don’t allow someone to argue you out of supporting the policy he’s espousing because of it. Shoot the messenger, not the message. (Disclaimer: Please don’t shoot anyone.)

Politicians are people too, which means they have all sort of personal tiffs and rivalries the rest of us aren’t entirely privy to and frankly probably wouldn’t care all that much about. (Except me – I eat that stuff up.) If Senator So-and-so thinks Congresswoman So-and-so is a Marx-loving-crypto-fascist, that’s great. Maybe she rebuffed his invitation to join the congressional dodgeball league. Don’t bother with it. Make sure the arguments you pay attention to are the ones that deal with the substance of public policy.

Every time a politician calls another politician a socialist or a fascist or a Mets fan, they’re trying to distract you. Don’t let them. The same goes for my least-favorite political defense tactic: tit-for-tat. When is the last time you heard a politician try to cover his own rear by basically saying “well, the last guy did it too”? Don’t fall for it. If Republicans ran up big deficits, that doesn’t mean Democrats get to do it too. We’re trying to run a country here, not give everyone their fair helping of Halloween candy.

(2) Don’t Build Straw Men.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, building a straw man refers to the rhetorical device of purposefully misrepresenting your opponents’ views in order to argue against that misrepresentation, rather than their actual position. Or as some of us call it, every televised political debate ever. Let me give you a real life example. During the collective trauma that was the debate surrounding the passage of Obamacare, a provision meant to entail reimbursement for doctors providing end-of-life care was helpfully rebranded by some opponents of the bill as a ‘death panels’ provision. Then those same opponents had a field day savaging the President’s plan on the grounds that it created death panels, which was apparently easier than arguing against what the President was actually proposing. Presumably because what he was actually proposing essentially consisted of warmed over Republican ideas.

During the 2012 election, a liberal group (the Agenda Project) ran this ad depicting Paul Ryan throwing grandma off a cliff. Subtle.

During the 2012 election, a liberal group (the Agenda Project) ran this ad depicting Paul Ryan throwing grandma off a cliff. Subtle.

To be clear, if you have a problem with that particular provision of the bill, by all means argue against it. If you think Obamacare is awful policy, then argue against that too. What isn’t fair game is to argue against a provision that isn’t actually in the bill. That’s just a distraction. The reason that this tactic is so popular is that public arguments are set up as zero-sum games. Most of us are just passive listeners – we don’t have the opportunity to ask follow-up questions or propose alternatives. All we get to do is listen to two schmucks blabber at each other. That’s what makes the straw man so effective: since you have to chose between two discrete options, the speaker is free to try to disqualify his opponent rather than defend his own position. Don’t fall for it.

Here’s something to try: keep listening well after you’ve decided who you support. Try to figure out what your gal is in favor of that you don’t like, or what points the other guy is making that you think are actually valid and important.

(3) Don’t Ignore the Facts.

I think this item is pretty self-explanatory, but it bears a bit of discussion. There are three kinds of disagreements over public policy: (i) disagreements in values, (ii) disagreements in logic, and (iii) disagreements in facts. While disagreements in values are sticky affairs, and disagreements in logic require the patient work of presenting and dispassionately analyzing each other’s arguments, disagreements in facts should represent moments when the conversation stops and takes its bearings. As has been remarked before, you’re entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts. And let me add that the world is, despite what you might have heard, a largely knowable place.

In recent years it seems to be a growing trend for people to respond to facts they don’t like by marshaling their own ‘facts’. Maybe this is a product of lower barriers to entry to the public square. Since there are more and diverse actors, consensus is harder to achieve. Whatever the case, I want to be clear: that doesn’t count. Two bad ‘facts’ don’t cancel each other out. If you and the people you disagree with can’t get together on the facts, then there’s very little hope indeed that you’ll stumble upon good policy. The problem of how we come to agreement on facts within the present media and political environments deserves its own post, but for now let me just say this: facts matter. Pay attention to them. And when you find yourself disagreeing with someone on the facts, make sure you’re each basing your beliefs on something more sound than whether or not a ‘fact’ happens to reinforce your world view. (If you’re interested in thinking more about this problem, I’d suggest looking into the following concepts: confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.)

A lot of really smart people have said a lot of really smart things on this topic, so let me just add one small thought. It’s hard for me not to imagine that there’s a relationship between oversimplification and this little problem we seem to have with facts. It would seem to me that as we embrace simpler and simpler visions of the world, the stories we tell ourselves are more vulnerable to the complex reality that actually makes up the world around us. It’s easier to embrace as true those facts you don’t like when your baseline assumption is that the world is a complex and messy place and that policy choices are built around tradeoffs. I haven’t figured out how to put that thought on a bumper sticker…yet.

Come back Thursday for Part II.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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