On Political Disagreement
January 22, 2011 10 Comments
Political disagreement operates on a continuum, the steps of which are useful to identify.
1. I respect your opinion, and we’ll have to agree to disagree. 2. I see how you reached that view, but I think you’re misinformed, in my opinion. 3. I see how you reached that view, but you’re plainly misinformed. 4. You’re misusing facts to reach that view. 5. You seem intelligent, so how could you be so stupid on this one? 6. You’re stupid. 7. You must have a suspect personal agenda, because no intelligent person could possibly hold that view. 8. You’re [insert ad hominem attack blistering the opponent based upon some personal trait], and therefore inept at reaching a rational conclusion. 9. You’re deliberately lying. 10. You’re obviously a [racist] [homophobe] [fascist] [Nazi] [KKK throwback] [Christ-killer].
A few observations about the scale.
- For most political discussion among people of good will and opposing viewpoints, political disagreement should never go beyond #4. It’s possible to profoundly disagree with someone, and continue to respect their intelligence, humanity, and good intentions. If civility in political dialogue means anything, it surely means never going beyond #4 — unless you encounter an actual Nazi.
- We’re trained as lawyers to find credible arguments for any point of view. As it develops, virtually all points of view can be either credibly defended, or at least shaved of their harsher aspects by mitigating facts (insanity, horrible childhood, substance abuse, really bad day, history of oppression, etc.). Most all points of view can be sincerely held, and therefore, even if mistaken in some respect, a genuine belief. Presuming the good will of an opponent is the foundation upon which the most profound dialogue occurs.
- Calling someone “stupid” (#5-#7) is genuine American stupidity, a deeply misdirected slam, because either (rarely) the person really is stupid and most assuredly should never be engaged, or (much more commonly) simply has a different viewpoint, for which “stupid” substitutes as a stupid assault. “Stupid” is a nasty, bully and lazy way to make a point. The point suffers.
- Lying, #9, has too much currency. Most people do not lie about their political beliefs. They express them sincerely, and sometimes ineptly. “Lying” has become a regrettable substitute for “mistaken.” Bush didn’t “lie” about weapons of mass destruction. His communications team ineptly seized upon a message they thought would resonate, in part because virtually every other intelligence service in the Western world, along with most prominent Democrats, also thought Saddam Hussein had WMD — and would, as he had done before, use them. The accusation of “lying” is incendiary, and generates much too easy hate. What’s easier to hate than a liar?
- The bomb-throwers in Congress, and the blogosphere, scream “liars!” or “Nazis!” when they mean “what are you thinking”? On matters of public importance, elected officials rarely lie, because to do so, to actually lie, would be a political risk few elected officials would take. They virtually always embrace a defensible position, a position that enables them to fend off any suggestion of lying. That’s predictable political behavior.
- That’s not to say that elected officials and high-profile commentators aren’t capable of disturbing cynicism. They often are. They’ll take positions simply because it’s likely to garner more votes or more clicks or more profile with their perceived base. Freely call that out when you see it — but don’t mistake it for “lying” or any other version of indefensible falsification. That’s politics, and immoral only insofar as you see the messy process of democratic governance generally as immoral. And if you see the messy process of democratic governance generally as immoral, rather than amoral, then you should probably excuse yourself from the dialogue and save yourself the heartburn. That’s what my Dad did.
- It’s critical to remember the difference between elected officials and citizens. When we’re talking amongst ourselves, no issues of votes or clicks or electoral power positioning arise. It’s just us folks. So there should be no questioning of motives and there should be respect.
- The farther up the scale dialogue reaches, the more likely the opponent gains sympathy because of the nature of the attacks upon him or her. Put another way, the angrier you are, the more likely you are to help the person you hate.
- Most of us are routinely wrong. And thank heavens. It means most of us are putting ourselves out there, still willing to engage our species. We neither lie nor pursue any devious agenda. It simply means we so rarely have all the facts that bear pertinently on the subject at issue. We’re all groping, us citizens, and it helps to grope together.