Posts Tagged ‘political discourse’

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On Handling Negativity in Politics and the News

01.14.11

The aftermath of the Tucson shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords sure has lit up the blogosphere, the Twittersphere, the Facebook-o-sphere, and the 24-hour-news cycle with those pointing to violent political rhetoric as being a factor to those vehemently defending the rhetoric with as much vitriol as was blamed.

And then there’s the average person.

Only the truly radical, extreme, unbalanced people in the world could’ve ever wanted a tragedy like this to happen.  That means that all of us, including those who engaged in the harshest debate with other candidates or public officials, find this event heartbreaking, appalling, and absolutely condemnable.  While not something remotely wanted, it is something we can all agree on regardless of our political affiliations.

But, it won’t last long.  If it lasted at all.

After 9/11, there was a palpable unity amongst Americans.  We all felt attacked.  We all felt connected.  We all knew someone who knew someone in New York.  We all felt that some sort of recourse needed to be made, no matter which party we tended to vote for.

I didn’t sense that after Saturday’s atrocities.  Almost instantly, and understandably, there were people pointing out the dangers of such a toxic political climate.  And, as expected, the defense came nearly as quickly.  Never was there that moment where everyone just shook their head in shame and pity and disbelief at the horrors of innocent people being gunned down in the middle of the day, in the parking lot of a supermarket.

It’s because the villain this time isn’t some faceless foreigner.  It’s one of our own.  It’s an American. And it wasn’t an attack on America in the symbolic sense — it was an attack on America in its most personal sense: that of a Congresswoman and those Americans expressing their civil freedoms that America provides.  While there were people of all races and nationalities and political affiliations in the World Trade Center, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was a Democrat who had just gotten done running a successful re-election campaign that saw her being attacked – both physically and psychologically – from her opponents on the other side of the political divide.

Naturally the reactions were going to be what they were.

You’ve got those on the left blaming the right and their rhetoric.  And then you have the right pointing fingers at the left for blaming the right.  And in the middle – or even on the far sides, even – there are those of us who just want it all end.

It’s exhausting and it’s depressing.  Every now and then, I get to the point where I think about just being done writing this blog.  What good comes of it?  It’s rarely positive in any sense.  Even the positives are spun to be not enough, while the negatives are nation-ending decisions.  Rarely do you hear more smug, know-it-all people than you do when talking politics — everyone’s an expert and everyone loves making it known that you’re wrong more than they love finding out what’s right.  And it’s almost always with things that aren’t easily proven one way or another.

Even writing this, I can’t help but think that there will be someone who reads it with their cynical mind, smirking at what I’m writing and finding naive idealism in it or who knows what else that shows that I just don’t have the think skin for politics or I just don’t know how the real world works.  But, I don’t care about those people.  I don’t have the energy for it.  If you want to take pleasure in the negativity, then it’s all yours.

The tragic events in Tucson didn’t change my way of thinking.  It just reaffirmed it.  I’m interested in positive, ambitious people who care more about the intangible ways that make life worth living rather than those only about personal gain and monetary wealth.  I’m interested in facts.  I’m interested in learning.  I’m interested in ideas and new perspectives.  I’m interested in people with humility and patience and understanding.

I won’t always be positive.  I won’t always be right.  I won’t always be the bigger person.  I’m human.  And I know that’s how we all are.  But I will try to be all those things more than not.  Because no matter how much we may disagree on things, we all want the same thing: to live in a better world than we were given.

So really, we’re all on the same side.

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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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How to Start Blogging: Read Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish

10.12.10

Andrew Sullivan’s political commentary blog, The Daily Dish, has just celebrated its 10-year anniversary of existence.

Why is this a big deal?

Well, for me, my own year-plus of blogging here on Agree to Disagree started in large part because of Sullivan’s writing.  His and John August’s eponymous blog are the two blogs that I’ve read since I knew what a blog was (honestly: I can’t remember the first time that I started reading either, it’s been so long) that I never fail to read on a consistent basis — it used to be daily, but now it’s more like every two or three days when I get the chance to catch up on everything, which takes a while since Sullivan is nothing if not prolific.  (Seriously, this guy blogs a TON.)

Why do I read Sullivan (almost) daily?

He’s a phenomenal writer and he has integrity.  He’s one of the few out there in the political realm who is willing to admit he’s wrong and change his mind on something if the facts present a different view than he originally saw. Sure, it helps that I see eye-to-eye with him on many levels — gay rights, Sarah Palin being insane, the intellectual dishonesty of the GOP, the appalling stances on the legality of torture, the legalization of marijuana — just to name a few.

On the other hand, he is a classic conservative while I consider myself a liberal; whatever that means.  If it’s one thing that I’ve learned over the years of reading Sullivan, it’s that those labels mean much less than the actual stances one takes on specific subjects and policies.

I’ve always had trouble with people generalizing and being overzealous about casting aside an entire group of people — whether based on religion, race, sexual or political orientation, etc. —  and Sullivan helped me realize that neither “conservative” nor “liberal” nor “moderate” can truly describe the thoughts and feelings of a person — many in the conservative community don’t even consider Sullivan one of their own.

I don’t mean to give him such high praise as if he’s perfect and unerring.  Far from it, just like the rest of us.  But, the candid quality of his writing is immediately relatable and inspiring — even when I disagree with him — because I know it’s coming from an honest place.  He doesn’t take a stance just for the sake of being sensational.

It’s because it’s how he feels.  It’s because it’s what he thinks.

What does this mean for you?

Probably nothing.

Other than that you read me (thank you!) and probably have seen me quoting Sullivan frequently or giving him hat tips for providing source material for my own blogs.  He’s been a huge inspiration to me and it’s blatantly evident in how I write in these posts. I have no shame.  Might as well learn (read: imitate) from the best.

Here’s to you, Andrew and the team at The Dish: many thanks for your continued excellence in adding quality content to the blogosphere.  I hope to one day hold a candle to what you’re able to do.

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Political Blogging: The Power of the Premises

06.19.10

What’s more important to an argument — a solid set of premises leading up to a logical conclusion, or the conclusion itself?

The political blogosphere is mainly just opinion writing, most often by non-professionals — myself included.  People take a stance on a law, bill, event, political figure – anything at all, really – and have an opinion on the matter.  So they then write a blog post explaining why they feel that way and why that way is the right way to feel about the topic.  Opinion writing is argumentative writing.  And yes, we’re all entitled to our own opinions; but, when it comes to arguments, there are sound arguments and there are unsound arguments.

A recent comment from one of my older posts began a conversation about this very topic that I thought it was worthy of its own post.  This notion of arguments and logic is something that I find extremely interesting and will be exploring even more in-depth on a consistent basis with a new project of mine coming soon (shameless teaser, I know — but get ready for it).

Something I always try to do with this blog is present my opinions as thought-out arguments, not merely rhetoric spewed onto the page to either rile up those who already agree with me or to infuriate those who don’t see things quite the same way.  There’s enough of that out there already.  I’ve definitely had moments of weakness and failure in this aim, to be sure; and I’m sure that looking back through my archives, I’d find those moments happened more frequently when I began.  And while I know that I will write both solid and weak arguments going forward, they will all be written from the perspective and intention of providing logical rationale to support my conclusion.

Many people read blogs that already cater to their tastes.  If you’re liberal, you probably don’t read Andrew Breitbart.  If you’re conservative, doubtful you frequent the Huffington Post.  (Although, it’s become trendy for some to follow those with whom they disagree just so they can leave extreme comments announcing their disgust through name-calling and other pointless commentary.)  In fact, many with opposing viewpoints are not welcome in the comments section of some blogs — not always by the bloggers themselves, but as evident from the response by the fellow commenters.

Perhaps it’s this chasm between the liberal and conservative blogs and their readership that causes most bloggers to not feel the pressure of forming logical arguments for their opinions — they don’t need them because they have the power of their already-devoted followers to lend their support to any dissenters, should any happen by.  Regardless — we have enough of those blogs out there that merely mimic the thoughts of their political faction and treat dissent without any intellectual respect whatsoever.  I’d like to hold myself to a higher standard and think that we should all demand the same from those bloggers we follow.

It’s true that one can accidentally arrive at the right conclusion despite having a total mess of inaccuracy in the preceding premises.  But that doesn’t lend much confidence to the one behind that opinion.  The commenter on my previous post that got this whole thing started brought up the notion that if one’s conclusion was “2+2 = 4,” it wouldn’t matter what kind of nonsense made this person arrive at that answer because it’s a true statement.  For that I have two rebuttals:  one, the premises do matter, as I recall from my days in high school algebra.  If you happened upon the right answer but didn’t get their the correct way, you lost points.  It’s not always about the answer; it’s also about how you get there.  And secondly, political discourse lives in the gray area and doesn’t always have a right or wrong answer like arithmetic — which makes your supporting evidence that much more important.

I’d argue that the basis for your opinion is more important than your opinion itself.  Think about it.  When someone gives you their opinion, the first thing you most likely will ask is: “Why?”  This invites the person to explain the reasoning behind their opinion.  Unless you blindly follow someone else’s stance on everything without a second thought (and I strongly recommend not doing this), you’re going to want to hear more than a response of: “Just because.”

So, the lesson to be learned from all of this is that we should take care to note the argument’s premises – if there are any – the next time you’re reading an opinion blog rather than only focusing on the conclusion.   You might be surprised.  You might find that while you thought you agreed wholeheartedly with the opinion at first,  after seeing the support being mainly comprised of empty rhetoric and other meandering opinion instead of rational evidence, you’re not so sure after all.

It’s always nice to read something that completely validates how you’re feeling — but it’s even better when you can be sure that you have a factual leg to stand on when people question your opinion and you can respond with more than “just because.”