You’re an Un-American, Knuckle-Dragging Nut-Job If You Don’t Agree With This! Why We Need to Cool the Rhetoric.

In PeaceAble on April 22, 2015 at 9:23 am

Facts exist independent of us. Truth does not. We discover facts, but we construct truth. Truth is what we find where the facts and our perceptions intersect.

Thus, in any situation, there may be many truths; and since the facts are often harder to determine than our separate truths, it is those that will most often prevail, for we would sooner reject the facts than change our truth.

When we become polarized over issues that might seem easily resolved if everyone just knew the facts, it is important to remember this simple principle. When you attack my truth, when you force me to defend that which is so important a part of me, then you have just lost the battle to teach me the facts which might lead me to alter that truth on my own, in my own time and my own way.

Ask yourself a simple question. How often have you been convinced to change your mind about something because someone with an opposing point of view called you names, ridiculed you, impugned your honesty, your morality and your intelligence, and in various ways dismissed and dehumanized you? In the face of this kind of onslaught did you suddenly have a revelation that, my god, they’re right and I am wrong? Or did exactly the opposite happen and you became even more adamant about rejecting everything they might have to say on the issue and more convinced than ever that you were right?

This is the state of public discourse in America today. And it’s dangerous.

A democratic society relies on the ability of its citizens to engage in active, free, informed, and reasoned debate about issues. And the more critical the issue, the more passionate the advocacy on opposing sides, the more pressing the need for a solution, and the more important it is for both citizens and their representatives to engage in rational, productive discourse. When even the most minor differences of perception or belief become scandals and crises fueled by unrestrained outrage and immoderate rhetoric, then our ability to function as a democracy is undermined; and compromises, workable solutions, and even the routine functions of government become impossible.

As a progressive, I believe that there is a better way, and I think that progressives have a responsibility to set the tone for a future that is more democratic and less confrontational.

First, let’s stop the use of pointless name-calling and characterization of those whose ideas we oppose. Let’s eliminate from our own language terms such as “repugs” or “rethuglicans.” Let’s not make up “funny” names for our opponents, or stoop to characterizations such as “America’s Dumbest Congressman.” And we can stop creating broad classifications of people based on their position on a single issue. A reasonable person can disagree with the scientific conclusions in one area, without being “anti-science” or a “science denier.” We can speak our truth directly, forthrightly and clearly without resorting to fallacious arguments and dehumanizing tactics. If we can’t stand what Rush Limbaugh is doing, then let’s not imitate him. If actual comedians and satirists who identify with the left want to make fun of right-wing ideas and those who espouse them, fine; but let’s not let it become the go-to strategy for every discussion we get into about important issues.

One other consequence of making these kinds of polarizing and unproductive knee-jerk responses our fallback argument is that we make enemies of ourselves. I recently saw a comment on a post about the issues surrounding childhood vaccines in which the writer lumped “anti-vaxxers,” “right-wing nut jobs,” “science-deniers,” and two or three other things all together in a single rant. That isn’t just unproductive, it is flat out wrong. Only the most fundamental extremists are purely one thing or another. When we start to lump all the things we personally don’t like into these kinds of hybrid evil-doers, we forget that people who are just as passionate as we are about some things disagree with us about others. If we make enemies of them over one issue, how can we expect to work with them on others? This happens at both ends of the spectrum, of course. A writer for a sports magazine suggested reasonable restrictions on firearms and received death threats from people he mostly agrees with about guns. If progressives want to create a genuine coalition around our issues, we need to be willing to accept the kind of diversity of opinions about those issues (and the positive discussions those differences can create), we can’t go into attack mode every time someone strays from what we consider the “correct” position.

Secondly, and I’ve said this before, let’s stop talking about every disagreement as a war on something. We cannot, to paraphrase Einstein, both speak like war and work for peace. And this is true about both the things we have characterized as wars and those characterized that way by our opponents. So let’s stop getting into arguments about a “War on Christianity.” Let’s just say there is no such war, and move on. Let’s stop calling it a “War on Women.” It is a systemic cultural problem that limits women’s free exercise of their rights as citizens and denies them equal access with men to full participation in the privileges, opportunities and responsibilities of our society; but who is the enemy except the culture itself? Cultures change slowly, and we can’t speed it up if we start thinking of major portions of that shared culture as enemies. All that does is reinforce their perception that they are under attack. In wars of rhetoric, just as in wars of military engagement, what would happen if someone like Bill O’Reilly called a war and we simply refused to show up for it?

Let’s get in the habit of taking a breath before we jump into an unproductive argument. Let’s just say no to reposting memes or restating simplistic “bumper sticker” arguments without at least checking them out first to be sure we know the full story, the context, whether the facts are accurately and fairly portrayed, and whether we would, on our own, arrive at the same conclusions. We are entitled to have our own experts on controversial arguments, of course, but we should choose them carefully, expect them to be wrong sometimes, be careful of creating confirmation bias, and be willing to change our minds as our knowledge and understanding changes.

Finally, let’s stop calling for extreme consequences for every insensitive word, every distasteful attitude, or every prejudiced or unenlightened action.   If a clerk in a diner somewhere makes the mistake of posting a rant that goes viral, we don’t need to destroy him, his job, his family and his whole life. That will simply convince him of the rightness of his opinions, If someone lives her life in a way that is different from ours, we won’t change that by “shaming” her publically on social media. All that accomplishes is to drive people into opposing camps and increase polarization, which quickly gets unproductive and completely irrelevant to the real issues. Instead, let’s criticize and say what we believe is wrong about a person’s ideas or actions, not turn those whose minds we would change into martyrs for the extremists we stand against.

And let’s encourage those who disagree with us to do the same things. People, generally, are getting tired of a constant state of high alert over everything. They are worn down by the polarization, the vitriol, the self-righteous outrage, and the intolerance that they are inundated with every day in the twenty-four hour news cycle and the ubiquitous and incessant cacophony of social media. They are dropping out. A democracy functions best when its citizens participate. But that participation is most effective when the culture itself encourages reasoned discussion by an accurately and fairly informed citizenry. Every citizen is not just entitled to a voice, but to have that voice listened to and respected. We can help achieve that by making a greater effort, each of us, to listen to and respect those voices with which we most disagree, even as we act in advocacy for our ideals and in committed opposition to what we see as wrong.

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