Saturday, November 08, 2008

Long Brain-Dump Politics as a Religion

As I've said before, one of the things that drove me nuts about this election was that many sites went beyond advocating positions and issues to create a religious movement of sorts - any disagreement with the party was considered heresy, any critique of party leaders was considered grounds for expulsion. At the time, I called it out more on the right than the left, because they had this whole Obama as Messiah message going, when they were doing the same damn thing. Hypocracy annoys me.

In retrospect, it seems to a centrist like me that parties are becoming all about the slippery slope and straw man fallacies. If you allow some economic regulations today, you will wake up tomorrow in the equivalent of a Communist regime. If you allow a carefully crafted ban on partial birth abortion today, even with life and health exceptions, you'll wake up tomorrow without any ability to access birth control. If we even talk about pulling troops from Iraq, terrorists will count it a win and come dive-bomb our cities at will. If we allow limited drilling on American shores or allow any encroachment into the territory of an endangered species, the entire ecosystem will collapse immediately. Allow a ban on certain assault rifles today, and by tomorrow owning any kind of firearm will be completely illegal. And both sides can point to at least one fringe person who holds the extreme position and say, "See? That's whose going to win control of our lives if we give one single inch to the enemy." Not only that, but we're generally equating our positions with ethereal concepts that provoke a viceral reaction. In the examples above, both pro-choice advocates and pro-gun advocates will tell you it's all about freedom, and they will fight for their freedom until their last dying breath.

May I suggest that perhaps it's time to take a step back?

Basic problems exist with both slippery slope and straw man arguments:
As an example of how an appealing slippery slope argument can be unsound, suppose that whenever a tree falls down, it has a 95% chance of knocking over another tree. We might conclude that soon a great many trees would fall, but this is not the case. There is a 5% chance that no more trees will fall, a 4.75% chance that exactly one more tree will fall (and thus a 9.75% chance of 1 or less additional trees falling), and so on. There is a 92.3% chance that 50 or fewer additional trees will fall. The expected value of trees that will fall is 20. In the absence of some momentum factor that makes later trees more likely to fall than earlier ones, this "domino effect" approaches zero probability.

Arguers also often link the slippery slope fallacy to the straw man fallacy in order to attack the initial position:

A has occurred (or will or might occur); therefore
B will inevitably happen. (slippery slope)
B is wrong; therefore
A is wrong. (straw man)
This form of argument often provides evaluative judgments on social change: once an exception is made to some rule, nothing will hold back further, more egregious exceptions to that rule.

These arguments are also the fuel for what I'm coming to understand as the Politics of Fear. By that, I mean the tendency for a candidate or a party to spend little or no time articulating what they actually stand for, instead focusing on what they're against. It's the essence of negative campaigning, painting the opposition as the Scary Other. And I believe it's losing ground in the current political atmosphere. If I'm reading it right, people are getting tired of being afraid. They want something to believe in, not just something to be against. Look at the huge reaction to Obama. Yes, if you're not for him, it's annoying and you're pretty much thinking that the kool-aid drinkers are going to get their wake-up call soon. But what's really driving it, and why didn't the McCain warnings work? It's that "Change you can believe in" thing, guys. People are honestly hoping we can focus on doing something right, not just be afraid of doing something wrong. If they screw it up badly, there could be a rebound that will allow the negative focus to resonate in 2012. But I'm actually hoping not.

Here's a bright spot I've seen. This post on Crooks and Liars is awesome:
I want to take Obama at his word, and make C&L possibly the first leftwing blog to actually try to WELCOME our conservative readers. To all our conservative readers, I’d like to know your thoughts about being a conservative, how your life has changed under Bush, what your hopes for the future are with Obama, how you think liberals could help reach out to conservatives (and vice versa) to help heal the huge gapping rift between us without either side having to sacrificing their opinions or principles. I really want to do exactly what I've been hammering on about over the past couple of years, find common ground to foster healthy debate over differing opinions.

Because something I witnessed truly moved me –I watched McCain’s concession speech, and was saddened by the booing when he congratulated Obama, called him a good man, and looked forward to supporting him as our President.

When I then watched Obama’s victory speech, I was moved by his praise for McCain, calling for unity, to be seen as a president for all the people, both on the right and the left… and by the crowd cheering in response to those words, many in tears of joy and gratitude.

And I’m not the only liberal to miss spirited debate with those conservatives still valiantly defending the reality based community, such as Gergen, Powell, Christopher Buckley and the like.
'There was a time when conservatives were, in my opinion, wrong about everything, but you could interpret facts differently from then and be right without necessarily dismissing them as insane. I really hope we can get back to that kind of honest debate. It was intoxicating.’

Right on, Blue Gal.

So I’m calling on my fellow liberals at C&L to take our President-elect at his word. I want C&L to be the first progressive blogsite to do what needs to be done – reach out to those conservatives who share more of our values than not; to welcome them to a forum of honest, and respectful debate; to share their hopes and dreams and ideas with us so we can make America a better place to live for all of us.

Exactly correlates with my thoughts, and here's why: I went into law school with a set of ideologies. I was put in classrooms with people who were all intelligent enough to get into such a highly competitive program, with a professor who knew the subject and whose job it was to teach us to think. We were not allowed to rant and chant slogans, we had to talk precedent and policy. What works? What doesn't? What are the risks in going this direction? Has this been tried before? Can the government do this? Should they be able to? What's the danger, what's the gain? In being forced to articulate and defend a position, I got to know my positions better. They changed, in light of some very good arguments on the other side. And I started to realize that the point is not to cling to dogma, the point is to look at it all intelligently and fashion a system that works.

When we retreat into our ideological enclaves and fail to engage the other side in actual debate, not just flame wars, we miss out on the opportunity to find the best solution. Our government is built on balancing powers, the individual versus the state, the courts versus the congress. Too much laissez-faire policy in the economic system and we get a bad outcome - children working in London sweatshops in the 1800's, and the tainted sausages memorialized in The Jungle. Too much regulation, and we get China after the revolution, putting professors into the fields to plow. Yet every regulation doesn't necessarily end in communism, and lifting any one of them doesn't mean we're heading back to the Jungle. It's a balance. What works best now? What are the potential dangers? How can we mitigate the dangers while exploiting the benefits? Where are our checks and balances? What if the checks and balances go out of whack? That's something to look at, on both sides. Another example: health care. I recall McCain warning that Obama's health care plan was socialization, that it would invest the Government with the right to choose your health care whereas his would leave these decisions between you and your doctor. Obama's proponents dismissed this, saying it would simply give you access to the same plan that Congress has. Now, I'm seeing this: article in the NY Times: Court Blocks White House Push on Medical Expenses.
A federal court has blocked the Bush administration’s effort to save money on Medicare by paying for only the least expensive treatments for particular conditions.

. . .

Congress set forth the touchstone for Medicare coverage in a 1965 law that created the program. The law generally prohibits payment for items and services that are “not reasonable and necessary for the diagnosis or treatment of illness or injury, or to improve the functioning of a malformed body member.”

If an item is covered, the payment rate is specified in other parts of the law.

The Bush administration argued that Medicare officials had the right to decide whether the expense incurred for a given item, not just the item itself, was “reasonable and necessary.”

Okay, I'm pretty sure McCain wasn't warning us that "If you get on Obama's plan, then those politicians like me who want to cut the pork out of all government spending will attempt to ensure that you get the absolute cheapest care whether it's the best care for you or not." And I'm pretty sure Obama didn't dwell on this as a potential side effect of opening a government healthcare plan to the public, he's too busy pushing the idea. Further, I'm pretty sure that if they make sure that the public has the exact same plan as Congress rather than some sub-category, Congress' own self-interest will weigh against the idea of mandating the cheapest care even if contraindicated by the medical community. However, it's only by examining all sides of that issue and being willing to critique both parties that you even see this particular danger, and note the solution to keeping it in check.

In a conversation I've had recently, the issue came up of whether this was even possible. It was with an Obama supporter, who felt that McCain supporters would not feel comfortable sharing their views: If they are afraid of Obama's supporters/former connections as being too radical, and they know that the person they're talking to is a supporter - and thus either doesn't see or doesn't care about the radicalism that they feel is so crucial to their own fear/rejection of him as a leader - wouldn't they feel any real dialogue is pointless because the Obama side just doesn't get it? And conversely, if the Obama person believes the McCain supporter doesn't see that these connections are not the threat that they're making them out to be, wouldn't they too feel it's pointless to talk? Isn't there just too much hostility on both sides? But that's where the law school analogy comes back in. There is this thing called the socratic method, which is normally associated with horrid grilling a la The Paper Chase, but is actually very effective if done in a non-judgmental way. Say you're the Obama supporter, and you're trying to engage the McCain supporter in dialogue and you run up against the Reverend Wright thing. You are dismissive of it, believing it's no different from some of America is being Damned speeches given out in the past by the likes of Pat Robertson. They feel it's essentially hate speech against America and shows a fundamental disdain for who we are as a nation and their own most cherished beliefs. What you have here is a failure to communicate. Instead of lecturing on how it doesn't matter or trying to make your point, ask questions and listen, nonjudgmentally: What most concerns you about Obama's connections with Wright? What about Wright's statements most concern you? How do you feel that's qualitatively different from some of the more mainstream preachers? How do you feel it's different than when we all hear our own churches preach something we don't agree with? The idea is that it becomes a "teachable moment" for both sides, instead of a vitriolic screamfest. Each may learn something about the other's POV - perhaps there's something in the other person's background that makes their position more understandable. For example, I have a large exposure to very rabid hate speech that was espoused by charismatic-style churches, so I tend very much to identify Wright's statements as being of the same ilk. Someone who has never attended one of those churches, and has only known churches where preachers discuss theology rather than current events, may be much more shocked by Wright's statements than I. I also have experience now in going to Catholic church and hearing an official position that I don't always agree with, yet attending the church anyway. That is also foreign to some, and they may not understand how I can morally make that decision to take the good and leave the rest. Those are just some examples, but it's that level of personal experience that can make two rational, thinking people look at the same scenario and have very real, very different viceral reactions to it. But if you don't take the time to understand, and to be non-judgmental in your questions, you never find out about those things.

Take as another example the big government/small government dichotomy. There may be a level of personal experience at play - a relative who never took personal responsibility for their own mess until they were forced to, and a projection of that example onto all government aid recipients. I'm fairly sure that's what's going on with Joe the Plumber - he's been called out on the fact he has been on food stamps in the past, and justifies that as he's paid back into the system on taxes. Yet he fails to make the connection that this is how the system is supposed to work, and is very much against that system. So I speculate: who does he know that didn't pay back, that he felt took advantage of the system far beyond what they should have? Himself? A close relative? A friend of a friend? Who pops in his mind as the someone his hypothetical additional tax dollars should he ever make $200,000 will be supporting that will never straighten themselves out, or won't until they can't get a "hand out" anymore? Why does he reject the idea of the system altogether instead of simply tweaking the system to fix the specific issues? I wouldn't know if I never asked. I may be utterly wrong, it may be no one. But again, you have to ask. Only then can the sides be examined to see if there is a flaw in the reasoning, or an error in the data.

Caveat: some people cannot be engaged, because they have invested their own self-identity into these beliefs. Some examples: Some people who have had an abortion may be unable to ever consider the idea that abortion in any form is wrong, because to do so (to them) is to admit the possibility that what they did was wrong and they can't go there in their mind. Doesn't matter if what's being discussed is actually analagous to their situation, anything about the issue is personal to them. Some eople who have overcome a serious problem - poverty, addiction, etc., can become more intransigent when discussing these issues because they have so much invested in what worked for them, and so much personal self-identity caught up in being proud of their transformation that counteracts and allows them to suppress the residual guilt or shame about having been an addict. I'm not saying it well, but it's the "I was strong, I got out, I am different, they need to do what I did, I know them and I know they're no good or lying or just too damn lazy 'cause that's why I didn't get out sooner" type of thing. It's too personal. Likewise, someone who feels that finding religion changed their lives and believes that it is only by undergoing as similar transformation can anyone else truly be saved . . . they're not going to be able to hear that this is not the answer for everyone, and they may not be able to hear negatives pertaining to their religion. It's so much a part of their self-identity that innate barriers go up whenever it's challenged. I am related to some people like that. You can dialogue like this, and discuss POV, and if their reasoning is flawed, they become more and more defensive. That's when it's time to back away and decide to disagree. Otherwise (and I know this from experience) the conversation becomes personal. In my case, I'm told that I've been taught too much that life is a shade of grey and I need to get some convictions, or that I'm just trying to trap them because I've gone to school to learn to argue, or that I think I'm so smart, etc. But walking away doesn't mean you don't come back another time and try again. Sooner or later, with exposure and life examples, people's attitudes can and do change. My rabidly anti-homosexual relative stunned me when a family friend was still invited to Christmas after she came out. Okay, it didn't change the attitude toward all gay people, but it appears that there became exceptions to the "they're all Godless immoral people trying to corrupt our children into their lifestyle" rule. Time may have tempered that further, if they hadn't passed away.

However, we also need to be aware of these issues within ourselves, usually manifested by an increasing hostility to an idea that is out of proportion to the subject being discussed. Be aware of our own biases. A personal example: I was raised in a household in which the label "dysfunction" doesn't begin to cover it. In my twenties, I was in a discussion regarding how to help a mutual friend whose life was going down the tubes, and the other person was making the point that he wasn't raised well, mother was an alcoholic, etc. I found myself getting disproportionately invested in the conversation, disagreeing with the most basic points. But I didn't see my bias until I spoke it aloud: The reason why I can't agree with you that he's doomed to failure in life due to his background is because I had the same damn background and have fought all my life against it, and if it's futile, then sooner or later I'm going to fail and I refuse to accept that inevitability. Interesting. It was a passionate, emotional, viceral reaction. But what I was not seeing is that different people have different ways of reacting to situations, different abilities, and different development. I'm blessed with intelligence, others aren't. I had a relatively normal childhood for the first ten years or so, and so was allowed to develop normally for that time period. Others don't, and we know from research that if certain conditions aren't met they can never be made up (you lose the ability to make certain connections in the brain). So what I was arguing so passionately was a fallacy - that his circumstances related to mine, or mine to him. They didn't. What I did and what kept me going is not what would help him. Some people do get to the point where they're beyond help, particularly if the same handicaps imposed on them by their conditions (mental illness, etc) are untreated or not treatable, and make them unable to see that anything is wrong, much less fix it. So I learned. But only by having the conversation and being open to correction of my own prejudice.

Wow, this is a long post. And I've taken several hundred extra words to make my point, can you tell I was an English major in undergrad? And I should probably go back and edit about half of it out, but it's too long and I'm too tired. Not like I'm being graded on this puppy. I just hate to see division simply for division's sake. I strongly advocate the idea that we start shifting away from a demagoglogical model of politics (Is that a word? It should be.) toward a rational discourse between parties to come to a better understanding, and hopefully the best solutions for all of us.

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