Saturday, April 24, 2010

My feeble attempts to promote civil discourse

A message I sent this morning to Matthew Yglesias (or whoever looks at messages sent through his blog:
Mr. Yglesias,
I'd like to make a suggestion: You have a lot of insightful and important things to say. Do you think it's constructive to engage in as much snark as you do? It seems to me like it serves to rile up people who are on your ideological side, and I suppose I could see some constructive purpose in doing that. But I would suggest we'd all be better off if political discourse was based more on humane and rational conversation and a shared commitment to building consensus about justice and finding the truth. I see your point that the right often represents entrenched power, and it may be necessary to struggle against that. But what about people like me, basically of liberal sympathies but not allied to the left per se, who are turned off by this tone of discourse? What about thoughtful and humane conservatives that might actually be convinced to change their policy positions? I guess it seems to me like your considerable talents and moral decency might be better served in a more consensus building, persuading, and a less base-riling, partisan role. I'll keep reading your blog, but the bitterness will often leave me a bit sad, and thinking you could be doing better.
Nico Dornemann

I also attempted to submit a comment on a Connor Friedersdorf post at The American Scene, but I closed the tab before hitting "submit". I'm an idiot sometimes.

The tribalism, jingoism, and nastiness that so often characterizes political discourse makes me sad. More important, I think it serves little constructive purpose- though I understand there are coherent arguments that it does. Shall I try to summarize them? OK.

One argument for partisan tribalism is that, given human nature, it's a good way to organize people into coalitions, which allows them to collectively reach goals. If people where more inclined to individualism, questioning their assumptions, always looking for new evidence, etc. they would not form coalitions and better organized, perhaps more sinister factions would get their way.

I guess that's the only argument I can think of right now (gotta get more sleep!!!). That strikes me as a plausible argument, and I can't say that it's wrong. I'd only submit that there are obvious costs to partisanship (group think, mob mentality, etc) and that there may be a possibility for an alternative strategy for liberal-minded folks, one that, in fact, many smart people seem to follow: Make arguments in good faith, don't be nasty to people, but always try to persuade them. If you think someone is acting in bad faith, first, give them the benefit of the doubt, then, if that fails, state clearly that you believe they aren't arguing in good faith, and continue to make your arguments to receptive audiences. If your views are correct, you will persuade people, and, in a reasonably democratic system (I would count the U.S. here), people will vote according to that view.

A possible counterargument is that some people will only vote out of anger, so, in order to piece together the coalition you need to win, you need to fuel the anger of these people. Again, I can't say that's wrong. I'd reply that you can win new converts by convincing people, and you'd be contributing to a culture of more civil discourse, which would ultimately benefit us all.

I suppose ideological coalitions actually contain people engaging in both strategies. So there are lefties who are paragons of civility, and those who sling mud with relish (ditto on the right, of course). It's possible that a coalition should want to have both types. So those who want all civility and no nastiness have to make the case that our model really is better by most folks' standards. Alas, Robin Hanson is probably right that politics isn't about policy, the we may first have to get more people to actually care about policy, or convince those who don't to focus on other status-based activities, such as World or Warcraft.


  1. Given that we as Americans are responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens for what was essentially a sociological experiment, I respectfully submit that your priorities are a bit off.

    A little girl being blown to bits because she has the temerity to live on top of "our" oil - that offends me.

    Salty talk - not so much.

    "You strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel"

  2. I think you are being rather naive here. Learning and understanding policy takes effort. That means that one has to care sufficiently about the policy. Most people can't care that much about most policy. They have their own lives to concern themselves with. (Whether they should care is irrelevant.)

    As such, it becomes more effective to call Obama a "terrorist sympathizer" than it does to try and point out policy differences and how the opponent thinks they are not going to work as well.

    But how would you propose a rational response to irrational, dishonest discourse? Political debates may be scored by fact checkers in the abstract, but the intent is to influence people, most of whom have insufficient knowledge and understanding to get the finer points.

    As such Lies Work. They cannot be argued against. You must call a lie a lie, and by being a bit rude about it, try and make people aware that the one lying is not worth any effort or attention.

    Yes that same tactic can be and is used to treat the truth as lies. Until there is some sort of punishment for lying, however, this isn't going to change.

    As such, talking about how being mean and nasty is bad may sound good, but for things to change we need to make lying counterproductive. If civil discourse could do that we wouldn't be moving away from that ideal.

  3. As a bit of a follow to what LittlePig said, I don't think I've seen anything so reprehensible and disgusting in my lifetime as the "civil discourse" that emerged on the TV and in politics regarding whether we should torture people.

    That is an inhuman debate and having a civil back and forth on it is galling.