Tag Archives: liberals

The Difficulties of Discourse

This article originally appeared on Disinfo.com

The futility of political discourse seems all-too-evident in America, whether at the highest levels of power concerning the nonexistent ‘fiscal cliff’ or the debt ceiling, or around the family reunion dinner table concerning guns and health care. Both ‘sides’ are guilty of pseudoscientific claims, misrepresenting the opposition, sowing division with unnecessary ‘othering’, and usually no real clue as to where they actually stand on the issues or why they stand there at all.

Authors like Alex Berezow and Hank CampbellChris Mooney and Jonathan Haidtclaim to have found the secrets behind flawed political brains, usually on the opposite ‘side’ than their own. Many studies and online polls posit to have found the mechanisms by which liberals and conservatives operate; liberals are smarter,conservatives are happierliberals stereotype moreconservatives bow to authority more. While many of these trends can and do show up again and again, it ignores the diversity within and without party lines, the cognitive dissonance along the ideological spectrum, and the subtler reckonings of individual issue orientation. It defies capitulation, conciliation, and compromise. The sweeping generalizations that each ‘side’ usually eschews concerning class, race, religion, gender and sexuality do not seem to apply when considering others in the political landscape.

As Peter Lawler discusses in a recent BigThink post, there is actually a very wide diversity of conservative opinion, some with more depth than others. If we understand the common history, traditions, populist underpinnings and umbrella themes of even widely disparate worldviews, we can begin to work together towards reasonable approaches and solutions to society’s ills.

What’s the big difference between American conservatives and leftist nationalists?  They have different views on how much big government can remedy the excesses of big business.  Another difference concerns their view of the goodness and enduring viability of local institutions and traditional morality.  They actually tend to agree that Marx’s description of capitalism as reducing our freedom to “nothing left to lose” is largely true.  They differ a lot on the goodness and efficacy of some socialist antidote.  From a socialist view, the [The Front Porch Republic] are agrarian reactionaries.  From a Porcher view, the Marxists are irresponsibly “Gnostic” utopians.

Clearly, generalizations and sterotyping are an impediment to progress on either “side”. Even this false dichotomy of language (a relic of the oligarchy’s division tactics and oversimplified media portrayal), contributes to the unhealthy ‘othering‘ that ultimately serves to dehumanize one’s debate opponent. If the other side wants to murder unborn babies, then they are inhuman monsters. If the other side allows people of color to live with poverty and police brutality, then they are heartless misanthropists.

Because, just as with any intellectual pursuit that involves reason, logic, and candor, striving for thorough understanding is hard. It would be much simpler to only intake the sources that validate our reactionary conservatism, religious zealotry, neoconservative militancy, wall street greed and austerity, party cheerleading, progressive utopia, new age psycho-babble, left-wing anarchism, conspiracy theory, or UFO dreamland.

Party affiliation can be deceptive, as can positioning oneself along the political spectrum, rife with overgeneralizations and false associations. Although it’s also inaccurate to outright deny existing on the spectrum at all; the truth lies somewhere in the middle. On issues, you exist more on a web, an amalgam of strands as varied as the visible spectrum of light (and even the invisible, if our mixed metaphor allows for our hidden biases and subconscious belief systems). Taken as a mean, however, it is fair to place yourself somewhere, at least initially for comparison.

So does a progressive have more in common with an anarchist or socialist than a neocon? Do a Democrat and a Republican each have more in common with a centrist or moderate than the radical extremists in their own parties? Do the moderates of each ‘side’ have more they can agree on than the loud and oversampled minority flanking their ranks?

Talking Points Memo highlighted the efforts of a small, but responsible, group of conservatives who are “pro-same-sex marriage, pro-choice, pro-tax Republican activists.” They may be on the rise, as the Tea Partiers whoenergized frenzied the base resulted in embarassing media coverage, abominable policy stances, a fractured party and a disastrous election. The cry to distance themselves may be ‘Everything in Moderation!’, as we all realize that those social issues are always going to be nagging ethical arguments nuanced between us, but that the majority of Americans are actively under attack by unprincipled predators.

Most people honestly believe their delusions and logical fallacies. They came by them honestly. It will only take the incessant jackhammering of facts to break them free. Whether they believe that there is a massive Kenyan conspiracy or that the mushrooms can talk to us, they are not crazy nor liars. The endeavor of discourse, be it personable, in the media, or the national conversation, should aim to correct misconceptions, preconceived notions, and mistakes. We are not concerned with intellectually dishonest actors here. Do not lower yourself into debate with manipulators and charlatans who are mostly concerned with power and greed. They are not usually themselves radicals or revolutionaries, unless they are using and steering such a group for their own self-interests. As a rational, reasonable debater, you will find your considerable efforts at chipping away the hard exterior of an entrenched acolyte to be far easier than dealing with an unremitting fraud. You can pull the former closer to a more moderate position with enough time and work. After all, they believe themselves pursuant to the truth; they have just fallen down a corridor of errors in their search. A liar has no such allegiance.

It is true that what is ‘moderate’ and ‘centrist’ changes over time. This is not a post-modernist statement endorsing relative morality or truth. It is evident that our national dialogue, and the pandering rhetoric of our elected demogogues, swings over time. There is nothing innate in it that demands it become more progressive or reactionary over time. Other trends such as changing demographics, current events, media, law, those in power gaming the system, and technological transparency help define what the New Normal is. We all contribute to it. We are all in a constant tug-of-war game.

It may be the case that in the grand scheme of the social contract and evolution, we are hardwired by default for authoritarianism, and to conserve the status quo. Think of gene preservation and proliferation and likewise other outlier mutations. But just because something is the popular consensus (logical fallacy: argumentum ad populum) or rules by our leaders (logical fallacy: argument from authority) doesn’t make it right. Likewise, just because something is novel or progressive (logical fallacy: appeal to novelty) doesn’t make it right. It is right because it is right. No, evidence and a factual revelation of how reality works should govern our beliefs and ideology, not the other way around.

We strive as civilized animals for societal progress; to protect the unprotected, to feed the hungry, to clothe the cold, to shelter the homeless, to defend the defenseless. Members in every camp can be reached who feel a sense of justice, fairness, equaility, and civil liberty as part of our American tradition and values. Only those actively working against a righteous human condition need be discounted from the discourse (unfortunately, they are often given center stage, the sensationalist media spotlight, a louder voice within their respective parties than the rest).

And there are a variety of radicals in every camp as well; neoconservatives, tea party conservatives, anarchists, corporatists, new agers, creationists, paleoconservatives, anarchoconservatives, tax protestors, ecoterrorists, corpofascists… Their numbers do not represent the larger percentage of each group (though on specific beliefs, biases and issues, there are predispositions from one group to another). That’s not to say that somebody with some crazy ideas can’t be right every once in a blue moon (see: Alex Jones or Terence McKenna), or that their outsider theories may not hold a kernal of interesting truth. A broken clock is right twice a day, and a logically fallacious argument can still happen to be right coincidentally.

Of course, given two theories, one should not simply report on both and say the middle ground is accurate. This is what has allowed climate change denialists to voice their ‘relative truth’ to an uncritical and overly open-minded media in defiance of the overwhelming and reliably tested scientific consensus (not to be confused with popular consensus or sentiment). The right has its fair share of creationist loonies and neoliberal acolytes. And the left has plenty of crystal-worshipping, anti-vaxxer, alternative cancer cure morons as well. It seems too silly to argue which unsubstantiated claims are more damaging to scientific advancement and public policy. We all have our false dogmas, and they all damage us all.

Proposed or theoretical truths are subject to analysis, and should be eviscerated by criticism, replicated by study after study, and broken down into underlying mechanistic principles. Only after these theories hold up (be they scientific, economic, legal or political), only then should they be added to ‘The Canon.’ The Canon, despite its strict title, is ever changing, ever flowing with both the passage of time, new discoveries and contemporary understanding.

If the austerians believe that we should continue to empower the rich (“the engines of the economy”) at the expense of the poor and middle classes, then theirs should not be the default prevailing Beltway wisdom. The burden of proof is on their economic religious dogma to bear that out, especially considering how disastrous the practiced results of just such strategies have been worldwide. If any policy-maker or pundit honestly believes the inane bullshit that comes out of their pieholes, they should be exposed to harsh skepticism. They may be honestly deceived (or self-deluded), or they may themselves be revealed as a deceiver.

The onus is on all of us to research understand the arguments we are making. Just as it is inappropriate to attack Chris Christie based on his weight (logical fallacy: ad hominem), bear the responsibility of understanding a religion before criticizing its adherents, whether fundamentalist Christian, zionist Jew or radical Muslim. Explore the finer points of your debate opponent’s political philosophy by forcing them to delve into their deepest motivations, cited sources, and logical mechanisms. Who knows? You might alter your stance a bit as well.

Challenge entrenched and unfounded belief systems, especially your own. Do so with a relentless fervor, sincerely try to falsify yourself and above all be rational, be reasonable! Learn the rules of argument and logical fallacies so that you can identify when they are employed against you, by either frauds or self-deluded. Turn the incisiveSocratic Method against all claims, but do so patiently and peaceably. Make it known when you are only playing Devil’s Advocate for the sake of comprehension. Question relentlessly and mercilessly, but also earnestly and nonjudgementally. This will force someone to defend themselves not from your close-mindedness, but from critical-thinking and logic itself. It may reduce them to tears. It may change minds. It might just change the world.

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Can Liberals and Conservatives Communicate?

This article originally appeared on Disinfo.com

There was a great article a couple weeks ago by Lynn Stuart Parramore, an AlterNet senior editor, titled What if Liberals and Progressives Could Learn to Talk to White Southern Men? in which she reminds us that for Southerners, being polite and reasonable are direct indicators of their sense of honor and self-respect. Most of them, despite our political disagreements, don’t want to be seen as rash, close-minded and unreasonable. Lynn Parramore, also Director of AlterNet’s New Economic Dialogue Project, recounts stories of relating to these individuals on certain issues:

What liberals and progressives don’t seem to understand is that you don’t counter a myth with a pile of facts and statistics. You have to counter it with a more powerful story. And that’s what Obama and the Democrats have repeatedly failed to do. White Southern men want a story that makes them feel proud of America and what it can accomplish. I’m troubled when I hear lefties heap scorn upon the South, partly because I know that the antagonism is precisely what the Mitt Romneys of the world hope for. They want to divide us and keep those regional antagonisms stoked so that the cynical Southern strategy continues to work. Every time a San Franciscan or a New Yorker rails against “rednecks” in the South, he has done Karl Rove’s work for him.

Finding common ground is important, and it’s the sort of thing we need to do to repair the toxic divisions sown by politicians and the media to keep us apart. It is vital if we hope to tackle issues like the debt deal, the fiscal cliff, and yes, even social issues.

There is a lot of ground that conservatives and progressives can share; disapproval of Wall St. tactics, distrusting the very wealthy (“38 percent of the the Bible Belt say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who is “very wealthy” than one who isn’t, a lot more than the 20 percent who admit that they would be less inclined to vote for an African-American), fear of drones and the growing surveillance state, and have historically supported some form of a social safety net. Sure there can be a lot of crazy ideas in there too, but liberalism has their fair share of nutjobs, as well.

And conservatives don’t see themselves as the unreasonable ones, anyway. For a conservative, not only is the uncomplicated authoritarian mindset an internally rewarding and often consistent one (also reinforced by parenting),  they also speak a language that focuses on not just dogma and faith, but also common sense and results. If you can reframe arguments in a certain way, conservatives may see a larger picture that begins to cross over with the debater on the left.

Results-oriented language should have been used by the Obama administration to pitch his ideas to the status quo Right, says Richard Tafel, founder of The Public Squared, a public policy training program for nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Obamacare, he claims, could have been sold, honestly and openly, but using a different approach:

“Folks, we have universal healthcare in the United States.  It’s called the emergency room and we pay for it. And we cover people’s healthcare right now who don’t pay into any insurance scheme and you’re carrying them. If you’re paying taxes right now you’re covering them. Wouldn’t it make sense for us as a nation to just ask those folks to register and get into an insurance program so we can cut their cost, we can be more proactive with their healthcare, and we can avoid the vast growth of healthcare costs.”

Watch “How to Speak Republican” video from BigThink:

What’s certainly true is that over the past four plus years, conservatives and liberals haven’t even been speaking the same language, let alone having the same conversations when arguing. Until progressives open their minds to respect and include a minority, a populist group, whom they happens to strongly disagree with on religion, taxation, immigration, marriage, foreign policy, and the role of government, there cannot be any real progress. Stubborn and obstructionist, perhaps. But both sides severely believe they are in the right. Regional antagonisms, ivory silos, and othering will not push us together or jumpstart our national dialogue.

Purple America” analysis by Robert J. Vanderbei, Professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering atPrinceton University. Also included are 3-D models and population analysis of the 2012 election, and the changing electorate over time.