Thursday, February 28, 2013

Political Debate And The Nasty Proportion Problem

When it comes to political arguments, I'm realizing that there are two problems that irk me more than anything else when I'm arguing with people. One of these, unsurprisingly, is when I perceive hypocrisy in another person's opinions, but that's a topic for a whole slew of essays.

The second, however, is a much more finicky, subjective and complicated problem: proportion. I get frustrated and angry when other people seem to have a sense of what is and isn't important that is very different from my own.

On one level, this problem is nothing new. It's a baseline issue in any human community, trying to decide what issues, problems and needs are priorities and which ones can wait or be left alone. This would be difficult enough if all human beings were operating at a similarly balanced level of self-interest and empathy, but of course, we're not. Some of us fearfully bend over backwards to give more than we receive while others operate from varying levels of anti-social selfishness. Thus, we create societies with hierarchies where the king's hangnail will always be a priority over the peasant's open wound. As horrifying as this kind of arrangement is, it has a sticking power because at very least, it's easy. We've only just begun the work of eliminating this kind of thinking from what we do, and that's going to be a long journey.

On another level, however...the information age really changes our playing field in how we deal with the question of priorities. As we all make our choices about what news media we consume, we take in a lot of very different presentations about what the state of the world is, and we have to process these and try to come to some consensus on them before we can begin to make decisions about what it should be.

It's a daunting task, to say the least. For those of us who grew up in a world of more homogenized journalism, it feels like being dropped suddenly into a frightening, chaotic anomie, a world where the safest option often seems to be clinging to what we already know. With a near-infinite choice of media, it's easy to move away from any source that ever challenges our preconceived worldview rather than bearing with the discomfort we feel when we encounter cognitive dissonance. Is it any wonder we're becoming more and more polarized?

And yet...we keep talking to each other. This may yet be our saving grace.

See, for all that we joke about the futility of engaging in ideological battles with strangers on the internet, the stupidity of "flame wars" and getting obsessed with people being "wrong on the internet," I for one am excited by the possibilities of this kind of communication. Never before in the history of humanity have we had the opportunity to engage so easily and freely this kind of discussion about social issues. And while the greater internet fuckward theory is definitely a thing, I think we'll get that out of our systems soon enough and start actually building a culture of real, quality discussion (more on this in another post).

In the meantime, however, we'll bicker until we can figure out how to get past bickering. And in the same way that we're drawn again and again to a nagging, unpleasant thought in our minds, we're often drawn to disagreements, drawn to the people who seem to have a very different sense of what is wrong with the world and why.  It offends us when other people have a different sense of what's important, of what is and isn't a REAL problem, or, if we're looking the same problem, what's the REAL cause. It's terrifying to feel like the other people in our community don't care about the things that hurt us or won't be stirred to take the action that we believe is effective. At the same time, it's terrifying to think we ourselves might be wrong about what's going on, because if we're wrong, well...anything could be going on in that big scary world out there!

That's all understandable. Where we get downright stupid, however, is in how we deal with this fear.  Instead of tolerating the fear and having the rational wherewithal to try genuinely arguing to persuade and listen...we instead let our fear become anger, then exercise a number of creative methods of denial. We insult them to make them seem trivial and dismissable. We lie to ourselves about why they believe what they believe. We look for comfort in those who already agree with us.

A more reasonable alternative, one that actually recognizes and deals with whatever legitimate cause there may be behind our fear...well, I think most of us are still working on that one.

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