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Thursday, October 14, 2010

8 Reasons Political Arguments are Pointless

A wise man once said “stay away from religion and politics”, and then a much less wise man said “what’s wrong with religion?”, to which the wise man responded, “no, no, I’m just saying that as a conversational topic they are best avoided in mixed company”, to which the less wise man answered “you don’t think God is acceptable conversation?”, forcing the wise man to say “I have nothing against God, I’m merely saying that conversations about religion and politics usually end poorly,” which enraged the less wise man, who responded “Are you saying I’m poor?”

pictured: Dan Akroyd (right), Ignorant Slut (left)
 While the bitterness that stems from such discussions was once confined to the duration of the dinner party, the Internet provides us all with an infinite forum to gripe about those minor things that make us different.  A naïve person might expect that this would pry open a worldwide dialogue that would allow us to solve some of the most divisive issues in our culture, but those illusions would dissipate quickly after scrolling the comments section of a few political blogs.

So why has this unprecedented communication tool failed to bring us any closer to resolution on the heated political topics of the day?

 #1) We argue against imaginary creatures

We tend to hobble ourselves before we even reach the race track with this one.  People have an unbelievable ability to apply the most inane motivations to their political opponents and actually believe them to be valid.  It is impossible to defeat an enemy you don’t understand and yet, knowing this, we blatantly mischaracterize our opposition.

The enemy
To find the perfect example of this, one needn’t look past possibly the most contentious moral issue of our day; the debate about abortion.  One side calls themselves “Pro-Life”, though their unifying political position would be better described as “Anti-Abortion”.   Despite taking the mantle of pro-life they remain curiously silent on subjects like capital punishment, soaring murder rates and lack of access to medical care.  Further, they characterize their opponents as a bunch of militant liberals that are out to kill as many unborn babies as they can.  The other side is no better, dubbing themselves the “Pro-Choice” movement rather than the appropriate “Pro-Abortion”.  They don’t seem to care about people’s choices on any matter other than abortion.  And, of course, they characterize their opponents as a bunch of misogynistic religious zealots that are motivated by a desire to marginalize women.

Neither characterization is remotely true.  Nobody is rooting for more unborn babies to be aborted and more than 50% of anti-abortion advocates are women.  The names were not chosen to describe a political position, but rather to cast the opposition in a negative light.  If I am pro-choice, you are anti-choice.  If I am pro-life, you are pro-death.  One can hardly blame the partisans here, but why must the rest of the world stick to their nonsensical terminology?  Can’t the “objective” sources simply refer to the two camps as pro and anti abortion?  And if not, what is the limit of this?  Will a pro-gun control group eventually dub themselves the “Pro-Not-kicking-puppies-in-the-head” movement?  If so, will the mainstream media indulge them?

This is not simply a semantic argument.  Using rhetoric that suggests our opponents are motivated by ignorant sexism or unadulterated evil makes it impossible to compromise.  Two rational minded people could certainly discuss this moral quandary and find middle ground but the very terminology now makes that almost impossible.

 #2) We argue with biased “facts”

Biased media is a double edged sword.  Not only does it lock ignorance into a closed loop, but it also has the unintended effect of making every piece of information disposable.  If I know that Fox News or MSNBC is biased (and how could I not?) then I can easily discard anything uttered on either station regardless of the merit of that particular claim.

In Brit's defense, everything except the word "not" was true
But this is not simply an issue for those who get their information from Fox, MSNBC, the Huffington Post or the Drudge Report.  These outlets wear their bias on their sleeve (even if the cuff links do say “fair and balanced”) and most Americans are bright enough to see the selective nature of their reporting.  But bias is no less pervasive in the “centrist” sources.  Even in stories where there is a clear right and wrong, the middle-of-the-road outlets will protect their nonpartisan reputation by presenting both sides equally even if one group is comprised of the overwhelming majority of experts in the field and the other side is a group of 86 lunatics with celebrity endorsement.

The end result is that before our political discussions begin, they are already doomed to fail.  We can hardly hope to find a solution if we can’t even agree on the facts.  Research shows that despite the fact that we consume a lot more news from a lot more resources, we are actually becoming less and less informed.

 #3) We don’t know what we’re talking about

Obviously if we start out with biased facts filtered through partisan sources, we are not going to be particularly well informed on the issues of the day.  But honestly, since when was knowledge a prerequisite for arguing about something?  Consider the sheer number of people that would be more than happy to give you their thoughts on turning around the economy despite knowing nothing whatever about economics.

In their defense, this could've been an anti-Starcraft rally
Economics is an extraordinarily complex field of study.  It is an uncomfortable marriage between mathematics and psychology, both of which were plenty complicated to begin with.  What are the odds that the person arguing knows the different between a monopsony and oligopoly?  Conservatively we can suppose that at least 50% fall into this category which would mean that in 25% or so of the arguments that take place are going on between two people who have no idea what they’re saying and wouldn’t know if their argument had been invalidated.

This is hardly unique to economics.  Those who are well informed on any topic tend to be fairly centrist so it tends to be that virulence is directly proportionate to vapidity.  The less we know, the more unrelenting we are in our opinions.  

 #4) We argue in strange absolutes  

"Only a Sith deals in absolutes."
"Isn't that statement an absolute, Yoda?"
"Up you should shut.  Collapse your lungs with my mind, I can."
Buttressing with the previous point is the sheer inanity of many political discussions.  With few exceptions, we all fall at some point along a spectrum when it comes to our political belief.  This does not stop us from assuming a position at the extreme end of that spectrum in a debate.  Nor does it inhibit us from assigning our opponent to the extreme opposite end of that spectrum.

Consider the nature of the tax debate in this nation.  For every productive discussion about the optimal upper tax rate, there are 500 arguments framed around vague and imprecise positions like “higher taxes v. lower taxes”.  No rational mind expects a totally unregulated free-market to thrive.  No reasonable assessment would say that a limitless amount of government intervention would be healthy for the economy.  Rather than debate where in this spectrum our policies should fall, many people simply line up on the “more regulation” or “less regulation” side of the argument with no real allowance for the present level and its relationship with past levels of regulation.

Our politicians, interestingly enough, do the exact opposite and create pseudo-dichotomies between nearly identical positions within that spectrum.  While objective minds might place their policies inches away from their opponents, they will talk about it as though they are as dissimilar as night and dog food.  This makes for good campaign rhetoric because it allows them to argue with the passion of an extremist without alienating anyone by actually holding extreme views.

 #5) We are neither donkeys nor elephants  

nor are we donkephants

The two-party system is a handicap to political discussion in and of itself.  The fact that a person’s religious beliefs can be unrelated to their feelings about firearms or that a person could be both gay and fiscally conservative seems to be lost in the present political landscape.  If you are opposed to affirmative action, it stands to reason that you are also against estate taxes.  If not, you really have no place in modern politics.

This becomes a hindrance to our discussions when we use it to amplify the “anti-unicorn” arguments discussed above.  The inherent hypocrisy of a political party can’t reasonably be applied to the members of that party; the spectrum of political parties is nowhere near as diverse as the spectrum of political beliefs.  People are generally forced to choose the party they disagree with least, which means that at any given time more than half of a party's adherents probably disagree with more than half of its platform.

Nobody can be an expert on all aspects of policy.  Rather, most of us have a single issue or a small number that are dear to us and we tend to choose our political affiliation based on those issues.  This might leave us holding our noses about the parts of the platform we disagree with, but we have no choice but to take the lesser of the evils.  This does not stop the opposition from applying every stance ever taken by a political party on every individual within it.  A conservative might dismiss the economic position of a liberal based on a preconception about liberal attitudes toward religion.  A liberal might dismiss a conservative view on judicial policy because of a disagreement with the consensus conservative view on gun control.

This problem really rears its ugly head when we are talking to the like-minded.  It is this nonsensical den of assumption that allows us to turn our political adversaries into subhuman demons or babbling zealots without actually examining their opinions.

 #6) We are arguing someone else’s opinion

We have already established that knowing about something is not a prerequisite to holding an opinion about it.  But if we don’t know much about something, where do these opinions come from?  In the past they were mostly handed down from our parents, teachers and clergy.  While many of us switch political affiliations at some point (or several points) in our lifetimes, many simply hold the beliefs they’ve been given and never bother to question the motivation behind them.

To exacerbate these problems, we have partisan agents like Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Ariana Huffington, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore and Sean Hannity.  Here are people who graciously agree to never challenge our preconceived notions on the condition that we keep coming back and watching their programs, reading their blogs or watching their films.  They promise to only present the facts that confirm what we believed to begin with and to obscure or misrepresent the opposition.

I, however, choose my opinions scientifically...

Rare indeed is the tabula rasa of politics who gathered objective information before holding a belief.  The best most of us can hope for is an open-minded perusal of the other side’s partisan venom.  Unfortunately, most of the info on both sides is slanted and biased, so it’s pretty easy to dismiss the claims of our political rivals.  Of course, but for confirmation bias, it would be just as easy to dismiss most of the reports from our side of the fence as well.

The end result is that very often you will find yourself arguing with Keith Olbermann or Glenn Beck via your coworker.  Once they’re done telling you what Keith or Glenn thinks they are out of ammo.  But their opinion is based solely on the one provided by said partisan pundit and is backed up only by the information that said pundit offered.  If any or all of this information is incorrect or out of context it is pointless to draw attention to it because neither Glenn nor Keith are there to answer back.

 #7) We are intractable
When is the last time you were in a political discussion in which you were freely willing to be swayed?  Generally speaking, those of us passionate enough to argue about politics are only passionate enough to do so about subjects that we feel strongly about.  Obviously if you’ve gone to the trouble of developing expertise about tax policy, you’ve formulated a very strong opinion about it. 

Firmly entrenched in the the
pro-cookie side of the debate.

We do not get into political arguments with the intent of changing our opinions.  We might fool ourselves into thinking we do it with hopes of swaying the other guy, but in truth it is more often in hopes of demonstrating how absurd the opposing view point is.  We use our biased facts to argue with our fictional opponent, tearing down straw man after straw man until we’ve managed to cement another brick in the impenatrable fortress of our existing opinions.

This is not to say there is no value in debate.  Two informed and uncompromising individuals taking part in an Oxford style debate is a fantastic way for the rest of us to try to glean the truth in the middle, but you will never see an Oxford style debate end with both sides reconciling.

 #8) We actually agree

We need all of these nonsensical mechanisms to maintain the existing political climate.  There are really very few issues that divide us as a nation.  The majority agrees on almost everything and usually by a pretty healthy margin.  If we made any attempt to frame the debate in a realistic manner we would certainly find that we agreed on more than we disagreed on.


On the subject of environmental advocacy, for example, there aren’t many people in the “screw the planet” camp.  The overwhelming majority of Americans (and earthlings for that matter) agree that we should seek better ecological balance.  The overwhelming majority agree that we should focus on finding renewable sources of energy.  The overwhelming majority agree that we should limit our pollution and find ways of using fewer non-biodegradable items.  And yet whenever legislation appears to address these issues we find the minute details that divide us and amplify them into insurmountable obstacles.

If you were to force Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore into a room together (with a generous buffet, of course) you would find that on 99% of subjects they were in complete agreement.  After all, we are all using the same logic, we’re building it from the same fact set and we all want the same outcome.  Partisanship is a tool used to manipulate the masses and allow us to demonize one another.  The antidote is simple rationality.  Recognizing the inherent humanity in humans should be easy but the present media climate makes it increasingly difficult.

The greatest threat to America doesn’t come from conservatives or liberals.  It doesn’t even come from the hyper-partisan pundits.  Debate is essential to a functioning democracy and the nemesis of debate is obduracy (how 'bout that word-a-day calendar?).

In my opinion, intransigence is the real enemy and nothing you say will convince me otherwise.

Aaron Davies

That last sentence was just linguistic irony.  If you disagree or would like to add to the discussion, please leave a comment below!

1 comment:

  1. This one isn't too bad. I disagree with a couple of minor points (confirming your observation that it is always the minor points we disagree with).
    I believe "Pro-Life" should more accurately be described as "Pro-Birth" as most adherents of this view seem tobelieve that one has no right to the things that make life possible: food,clothing, medical care and housing; without which life gets really short, and birth is about as far as one gets.
    I also object to "Pro-Abortion" because I don't know of anyone who favors abortion. Most favor making abortion "safe, legal, and rare", viewing it as a medical procedure best left to a Dr. and patient to decide. Abortion on demand has a very low approval rating.
    I believe it was the Civil War historian Bruce Catton who once wrote that "when men are going to agree any words will do , but when they are going to disagree the precise meanings of words take on great importance." I may not have that quote 100% correct ( I can't immediately lay my hands on my copy of "The Coming Fury"), but it is close enough.
    I will also say that it is indeed possible to convert, or be converted in a political argument. It is rare, and usually happens between people who have a fair amount of knowledge about the topic. One can pretty much assume that one will not sway an opponent who's only arguments are something he saw on the rear bumper of the car that just cut him.
    I'm sorry that it took me so long to get around to reading and commenting, I have been rather wrapped up in playing "Dragonage: Origins". It is such a pleasant break from the incessant lying of the Republican attack ads.