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Our Current Political Discourse: Time for Critical Thinking, Not Selective Listening

12.04.10

If we consider the endless debating on the 24-hour-news TV channels, in the blogosphere, and on talk radio as healthy political discourse, we’re lacking the “healthy” and “discourse” parts of it.

Instead of focusing on facts and figures to influence a “this is the best course of action” decision, all of our time “discussing” is really just making sure that every single person’s view on things – regardless of how informed it may be – gets its validation in the world.

I suppose the idea is that offering different viewpoints allows the reader/viewer/lemming to determine on their own which one is right and which one is wrong.  Or, more likely on the complex issues not as cut-and-dried as something like the Birther insanity, that each side would offer something valuable to the discussion (and by that I mean factual knowledge, not just personal belief) that would help the reader/viewer/lemming to come to their own conclusions.  Instead, though, people tend to just latch onto whichever person already coincides with their own beliefs (not facts or conclusions) and just accepts everything that person says as truth.  Our news has become simply about offering an outlet to validate everyone, not to empower them to come to their own conclusions.

So what ends up happening? People immediately become defensive when debate occurs because it’s not a discussion of independent facts and points of view; it’s become a personal attack on beliefs.  And, of course, people just reiterating the same talking points over and over.  It’s like we’re all just in one camp or another, following the leader.  That’s not informed debate.  That’s not engaging, educational discourse.  That’s not examining complex issues. It’s just finding someone that is a supposed authority to make you feel like, “Yup! I knew it: I’m right!  See, he said so, too, so that means whatever I think it’s the truth!”

The reality is that everyone lives life in a gray area, even if they claim to – or want to – live in an ideal world where there are clearly defined rights and wrongs. Recently in a Facebook thread, I had a discussion with two Republicans who can’t stand Obama and it came down to this: no matter what Obama does, they won’t agree with him. For example: despite the fact that Obama increased the military campaign in Afghanistan — which is something that one supported — she marginalized it by saying that Obama has merely “supported” the effort there.  I countered that factually that was inaccurate — Obama drastically increased the troop levels in Afghanistan — but, it didn’t change her opinion that he was a “pansy.”  Since she already had established that as her belief of Obama, everything had to be spun to fit that image rather than amending her belief; in this case, marginalizing Obama’s surge in Afghanistan as simply “supporting” what had already been started by his predecessor.

The other commenter in the discussion summed it all up rather succinctly:

“He is slithery and two faced, that is the bottom line.we will never agree on what he has done or not, but he is a fake for sure. [sic]”

Notice that phrasing — implying that even the facts are debatable and up for personal interpretation.  We can certainly disagree on the value of his actions, but to not even be able to see eye-to-eye on what actions he’s done… I mean, that’s outside the boundaries of rational thought. Unfortunately, I feel like that’s where much of our discourse exists today.

We’re at a point where people stick to their preconceived notions in the face of facts that may run contrary, seeking out and listening to others to reaffirm and support those notions rather than absorbing the facts and using those to influence our opinions.  Coming to conclusions based on the evidence seems to be an outdated concept having lost favor to everyone needing validation that their own view of the world is the right one and everyone else is wrong.

Except for those chosen political pundits that share those same beliefs of course.

I mean: what’s so good about all sharing the same feelings on politics as Glenn Beck?  So you can have the exact same political opinions as every other Fox News Channel viewer?  Or every other talk radio listener?  Every other self-proclaimed Republican?

We should all be as skeptical of opinion writers/pundits/hosts as we are of the public figures they themselves are criticizing.  We should all also accept that:

  1. our initial opinions might be wrong;

  2. accept that we won’t share the exact same opinions that we’re “supposed to” have given our political affiliations; and

  3. we will not know what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” on every single issue or policy or maneuver or bill that comes down the pike and is discussed exhaustively in the public eye.

There’s not nearly as much security in accepting those three realities — it’s easier to sleep at night knowing that we’re right and they’re wrong.  The biggest impediment to acceptance is that the pride that has been established already in the polarizing discourse has meant that no one can handle the ego blast that one would endure at this point if a die-hard Republican admitted that – gasp! – Obama did something they agreed with for once and didn’t spin it to still retain their comforting disdain for him.

To universally dismiss and disagree with everything that someone does simply because they did it is the exact same fallacy as universally celebrating and agreeing with everything that person does simply because they did it. It’s the flip side of the same misguided coin.  We need to accept the gray area.  We need to accept that Republicans will sometimes favor (insert traditional Democrat stance here) and Democrats will sometimes favor (insert traditional Republican stance here).  This shouldn’t be surprising nor unforgivable.

It should be encouraged that we think for ourselves and have diverse stances on things rather than stick to partisan talking points.  It’s time to validate critical thinking, not selective listening.

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3 comments

  1. Ryan,
    I absolutely agree with you that critical thinking and rational debate is indeed what should be the main stream discourse.

    When you write a blog post and suggest this is the way forward, you need to lead by example and not just when a certain post makes it easy for you to do so. It doesn’t help when you personally attack someone like Sarah Palin and refer to her as “insane”, which she clearly is not. Make sure you stick to critical thinking, facts and good debate and you credibility as a serious blogger will rise substantially.

    The President could help himself by reading this post of yours. How much does it add to the debate when the President himself uses such low level vernacular as “Republicans can ride in the back of the bus” This does nothing to forward adult debate, so it is easy to see why so many people have come to dislike him in such short space of time.

    I actually think that Obama has pretty much followed in the footsteps of George Bush when it comes to the 2 wars, kudos to him for listening to the Generals and understanding that we need to finish the job in both nations. He has shown the ability to listen and think critically. I wish he would demonstrate more of this behavior when it comes to domestic issues. He could win a lot more hearts and minds if he did so.


    • You’re never going to let me live that “insane” comment down, are you, Mike?

      I suppose I deserve it — even though I did recant it a while ago and agree that it was an emotional response, not a worthwhile discussion point, and it detracted from the discussion.

      That said: we’re all human and I’m not at all above the occasional knee-jerk response to touchy subjects despite honest efforts to be level-headed and rational at all times on this blog. I may not always achieve the goals that I set out in this blog post, but it’s something that I am constantly aware of and consciously trying to attain. And I think that’s the most we all can ask of each other — and to call each other out when they veer off course.

      The fact is that we’re going to say things and then realize that we’re wrong or inappropriate or misguided. It’s not about always being right so much as always seeking the truth. Which means sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we don’t form the best opinions because we don’t have all the information. The key is to allow ourselves to change our opinions if more information sheds light on a topic in a different way — and to accept it when the other person shifts their stance. Maybe then we can all meet somewhere closer to a point furthest away from both extremes.

      But maybe that’s just me being idealistic about being pragmatic.


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