Saturday, September 8, 2012

Give Reason a Chance

You've probably heard it said that the American electorate is "polarized"; that the environment is extremely "partisan". That's true, but what does it mean, why is it the case and how do we fix it? What it means is that a significant portion of the country has bought into a package of ideas presented by one party or another. It's as if one party is totally right about everything and the other is totally wrong, and you should pick one and defend it to the end. The problem is that political parties are really just infrastructures designed and built for the purpose of getting their candidates elected. That's all. They are not all wise super-entities with the correct answers for everything. Accepting all of the ideas or policies of a political party without question stifles real debate and the search for truth. Partisanship and polarization come about through the use of a technique, often employed by politicians but also by individuals on a day by day basis. It equates being wrong with being bad, or even evil. It's also connected to relationships. People sometimes adopt the ideas or behavior of those they admire, for whatever reason, as a kind of shortcut to working things out for themselves. For example, if you have to cross a raging river, but you don't know how to do it safely. You watch someone else traverse the river successfully and rather than do a lot of pondering and guesswork on your own, you do what they did. Later you come to a cliff you must scale. They person who successfully crossed the river has an idea on how to scale the cliff. You defer to their judgment on the cliff because you observed them successfully traverse the river. In the political world, it might translate as follows; your parents were good people. Your parents belonged to political party A. Therefore political party A is the good party, so you should be loyal to political party A and promote and defend them as well. Of course, political parties change, as do the people that belong to them. Political parties promote some good ideas and some bad ideas. It's advantageous for the parties themselves to convince people to accept the whole package, rather than consider each idea or proposal separately, on its own merit, so they promote that approach. Laying out the logical case and going through the reasoning process for each idea or proposal can be hard work, and time consuming. It's simply easier to convince people that those who disagree do so because they are bad people. You don't want to be a bad person do you? Ironically, this approach only works because most people are, and want to continue to be good people. They just don't always take the time to reason through ideas and proposals on their own. I believe that the vast majority of adherents to all political parties want to see the quality of life of the population in general improve over time. There is, of course, widespread disagreement about how best to bring that about. If we want to truly enable good ideas to come to the surface and be implemented, we must engage in productive debate and discussion. that means we have to dispense with the idea that being wrong means being bad. We must present, discuss and promote ideas, not personalities. We must evaluate performance and results objectively, not emotionally. We must choose elected officials based on competency to carry out the task assigned to them, not based on how much we'd like to hang out with them. Emotions can be useful tools. They serve as both red flags and default settings when your intellect doesn't have enough information to make a reasoned judgment. However, this situation is usually very temporary. In the case of politics, there is certainly plenty of time to put the emotional response aside, gather information and input and employ reason to come to a logical conclusion. A good practice to get into when debating matters of government policy is to refrain from mentioning any politician or party by name. This will help you to focus on the underlying ideas. If your counterpart is unwilling to do so, you're not engaged in a productive conversation anyway and might do better to switch the conversation to the something more benign, like the weather. Do not counter irrationality with irrationality. It's tempting to do so, but it only promotes irrationality. You can't force feed the truth. People have to be ready, willing and able to go their of their own free will. If it's not happening today, save it for another time. There's no deadline on the quest for truth. The world will not collapse if you allow your friend, your family member, your co-worker, even yourself, the space to be wrong for another day.

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