Let’s Save America with Civility
Last week, I wrote about the phenomenon of nuttiness on the fringes of both parties and the problem of nut-picking. While radicalism on the fringes is a real problem, it is also a problem that partisans on both sides assume that everybody on the other side is a radical and a nut. Today, I want to talk about a solution to that problem.
A big part of the problem of nut-picking, defined as “picking out a nut on the other side, trumpeting their actions, and then using the example to paint the entire other side as nutty by association” is that technology has allowed our society to become so insular that we can live in isolated bubbles and never hear opposing perspectives or meet anyone who is an open member of the other party. We have different news channels, different websites, different social media platforms, different celebrities, different restaurants, and we live in different places. There’s even a company that is attempting to cash in by branding razor and chocolate companies as “woke.”
We need to reverse that trend.
Again, I’m old enough to remember when it was different. Conservatives used to be concerned about the “Balkanization” of our society on ethnic grounds and saying that diversity should include diversity of thought, not just skin color and gender. Segregating ourselves on ideological grounds isn’t any better than segregating ourselves based on physical characteristics.
In today’s world, part of the split is because we just don’t want to hear anything that we disagree with or that makes us uncomfortable or “triggered.” Actually, that’s not totally true. We like to be triggered by the other side’s excesses, we just don’t like to have our own beliefs challenged or questioned. As the Bible puts it, we like to have our itching ears scratched.
In the world I was brought up in, ideas that couldn’t be challenged were considered weak ideas. In making steel, iron ore, an already hard substance, is heated in extremely hot fires. The carbon is burned off and the result is steel, a metal that is much harder than the original ore.
It’s the same with ideas. Subjecting them to heat can make the idea stronger. If the heat burns the idea away, it probably wasn’t very strong to begin with.
But then there’s the question of what constitutes heat. By heat, I don’t mean ad hominem attacks and insults. Using an ad hominem (Latin for “to the person”) attack is often a sign of a failing logical argument and/or a weak intellect.
One of my favorite quotes on the subject came via Michael Medved, one of the most evenhanded and logical political radio talkers that I’ve ever had the privilege to hear. Medved liked to quote Samuel Johnson, an English poet and playwright, who said, “You raise your voice when you should reinforce your argument.”
That’s a great critique of a poor debater.
I recently ran across a similar quote, which comes with a nice little meme, from Christopher Hitchens, who said, “I always think it’s a sign of victory when they move on to the ad hominem.”
I have seen people online who declare victory when they browbeat someone enough to get blocked. In Hitchens’ view, it’s just the opposite: You lose when you first start firing off insults.
As one of my pastors used to say, “Amen or oh me?”
I can’t say that I never use ad hominem, but I try to avoid them. I am human and I have a temper. Even though it’s a slow one, I can still lose it. More often than not, my ad hominems are simply a reflection of what someone has said to me in an I-am-rubber sort of way. (“No, you’re the poopy head.”)
To get to a point where we can test each other’s ideas without ad hominems, we have to first come together. Right now, that’s a big problem.
We do come together on social media, but the people that we interact with online tend to be more of the fringe variety. That feeds out nut-picking biases.
What I’m going to suggest is that we seek out members of the opposite political persuasion and seek to have a good, unheated discussion with them. Find out what they actually believe without applying preconceptions to them.
I’ve had some discussions online where people spend as much time telling me what I think as putting across their own positions. In some cases, I just say, “Dude, you seem to be quite capable of carrying on this entire conversation by yourself. Since you don’t need me, I’m going to move along.”
This may be something that we have to work up to. We have to overcome years of habits formed in the crucible of online discussions. These bad habits have left us almost incapable of carrying on a civil conversation about controversial topics like politics or religion. We are left only with sports and the weather.
There are several ways to help turn down the rhetorical heat in our conversations. One simple way is to stop assuming that people on the other side have bad motives. It is not a case of “all [insert other party name here] hate America” or “all [insert ideological opposites here] are evil and want to kill people like me.”
To start with, all categorical arguments are wrong. And yes, I realize the irony of that statement, but my argument is the exception. There is [almost] always an exception to every rule.
Further, don’t assume that everyone on the other side is the same. Not all Democrats are keen on drag queen story hours and abortion up until the moment of birth. Not all Republicans deck themselves out head-to-toe in Trump regalia and carry their assault rifles around town. And don’t get me started on people who make categorical statements about “the blacks” or some other ethnic group. People groups are not monolithic. Even when they have similar characteristics or ideologies, there are many individual differences.
We’d probably be surprised at how much we agree on certain issues. For example, more than 70 percent of Americans support red flag laws. With respect to abortion, 83 percent support legality to some extent but only 34 percent say abortion should be legal in all circumstances. On the other hand, more than 70 percent believe that schools should involve parents on questions of gender identity and 69 percent say that birth gender should dictate which sports transgender students should be able to compete in. A staggering 91 percent support immigration and about two-thirds support various immigration reforms, depending on the exact proposal.
The devil is often in the details, but most of us aren’t too far apart on the big questions. There should be plenty of room for compromise if we can break out of our bubbles of confirmation bias and overcome the shrill objections of political minorities. Compromise should not be a dirty word in our representative republican democracy.
Another tip for civil discussions is to accept that you won’t have the last word. Many of us have a pathological urge to get the last word that drives us to restart arguments hours or days later when, like George Costanza, we think of a snappy comeback long after it’s too late. As with George’s example, if we restart the dialogue, it doesn’t end with our snappy comeback because the other guy also wants to have the last word.
There are a few other guidelines for civil discussions as well. I recommend becoming aware of logical fallacies. Learn to recognize them and avoid using them yourself. “Moving the goalposts” and using a “straw man” are two fallacies that are extremely common in political discussions.
Using the 16 “fair fighting” rules from relationship therapy makes sense for everyday life as well. Most of these are common sense guidelines such as:
- Respect the other person’s perspective
- Listen without interrupting
- Do not yell, degrade, threaten, or curse
- Take a break if things get too heated
This could be summed up by saying, “Don’t be a troll.”
There’s a lot of truth to the old saying that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar (although why you’d want to catch flies is left unexplained). The behavior of online partisans often cements differences rather than persuading people to change teams.
But sometimes we have to realize and accept that we aren’t going to convince the other person. Sometimes we have to agree to disagree and just move on.
It’s easier said than done, but I think that if we all just start talking to people on the other side of the political spectrum we’ll realize that most of them aren’t the ogres that partisan websites make them out to be. Most people on both sides are genuine and decent and want the best for the country, we just have some different opinions about what that means. And I think that most people in both parties are closer to the middle than the radical extremists on both sides would have us believe.
I’m proud to be part of two good platforms that have done excellent work in bringing people together for civil discussion. The Racket News, started in 2020 with my fellow “Resurgent” refugee, Steve Berman, has been dedicated to no-nonsense, nonpartisan conservatism from the beginning. Both of us could make more money and have a bigger following by signing on to one of the Republican cheerleader sites, but that isn’t us. Likewise, I’ve come to enjoy Andrew Donaldson’s podcast and Ordinary Times. Both sites are blessed to have followers with open minds and kind hearts.
There are other sites that fit this mold as well. Jonah Goldberg’s The Dispatch is another source that can be trusted to tell it like it is, rather than simply dishing up the Outrage du Jour or explaining why whatever happened that day is bad for Biden and the Democrats. A rule of thumb is that if a site never says anything bad about your team, it is not a reliable source. [I’d like to invite readers who are familiar with other good, objective sites to share them in the comments.]
In closing, I’ll agree that variety is the spice of life. If we were all the same, the world would be pretty boring (although I tend to think that if everyone was like me, the world would be a better place). Sites and posts where the comments all read “amen,” “totally agree,” and the like don’t appeal to me very much.
I like the intellectual stimulation of a good discussion, but I also like to avoid discussions that degenerate into a shouting match. If we could work to reach out to our friends and neighbors of different beliefs with respect and curiosity, I think that we could make America a better place in short order.
Now get out there be civil!