Saturday, July 09, 2005

Suggestions for elevating the level of political discourse

Much of what passes for political discussion in this country is not civil, nor is it constructive, but is instead rude, vitriolic, partisan, and divisive. This type of atmosphere is not conducive to cooperation, compromise, and finding the best course of action through open inquiry in the market place of ideas. In essence, it is not democratic.

What can we do to improve this situation? First, I believe one should always keep Sidney Hook's rules for democratic discourse in mind. Simply following these rules should in itself lead to dramatic improvement. Secondly, one should remember one's manners. Being rude and/or angry does not make for a stronger argument - an argument stands or falls based on its content, not because of the conviction of the person expounding it. But aside from these two points, I have some more specific suggestions that deal with the way we use language to frame political debate.

It seems to me that the divisive nature of debate arises when the debate is framed as Us vs. Them/out-group vs. in-group, e.g right-wing vs. left-wing, or, as is most common here in America, conservative vs. liberal. These terms are used more as perjorative labels than anything else, and often serve to shortcut the actual discussion of the content of a person's views when they are invoked.

So here are my suggestions:

1. A moratorium on the use of right-wing and left-wing. Political views are too complex to be pin-pointed on a linear plot. Besides, we no longer have any Jacobins sitting next to Girondins - it may be time to let the metaphor go.
2. Conservative and liberal may not be used as nouns.
3. Conservative or liberal may be used as adjectives to describe persons or ideas, but only within the context of what the words actually mean, not what they have come to be negatively associated with. Under no circumstance should either term be used as an insult.

To help with the third suggestion, see the Wikipedia entries for liberalism and conservatism.


John Lombard said...

Sidney Hook -- bah. It stretches credulity to claim that rational conversation is possible in politics. I think politics has more in common with Ayer's emotivism that anything else -- people who are into politics aren't making rational claims, they're very loudly describing their emotional states. Sure, the truth is out there, but the cunning ad hoc explanations politics is rife with make it almost impossible to find. No matter how damaging something seems, there's an answer for it, a rationalisation, and explanation for why what looks bad is actually good.

Also, I think civility in discourse is a shibboleth. We all hate discord and we all want to get to the truth but being politer isn't going to make us any smarter. Complaints about the civility of the discourse are a political tactic.

But that said, it's always hilarious to hear Republicans complain about the tone -- they turned mudslinging into an art, and now they're getting a bit of their own back they've decided they don't like it?

Hume's Ghost said...

I don't believe the ubiquity of rudeness and idealogues in politics is any reason to excuse or embrace it ourselves. That's like saying its ok to use logical fallacies because everyone else does it. I'm tired of all the petty fighting I see in the papers and on tv. I'm tired of not being able to discuss the invasion of Iraq with my friends without them calling me an "Islamic radical" (nevermind my atheism or the fact that I'm the one who has Why I'm Not a Muslim sitting on his bookshelf or that they've never even heard of Sam Harris.) We should hold ourselves to a higher standard and we should demand it from others. We should strive to encourage and cultivate a culture of rational debate.

People bully and insult and villify those they don't agree with. I know. I had an e-mail exchange where I was being accused of being an anti-American and a terrorist sympathiser merely because I said that I did not feel that the invasion of Iraq reduced the threat of terrorism or that the war was justified by the (bogus) administration argument that Iraq had WMD's and operational ties to al Qaeda.

I can take it, I'm not afraid to voice my opinion, and I will certainly never let anyone act as if they have a monopoly on patriotism, but I'm sure that there are many who are intimidated into silence.