November 13, 2018

Bringing Some Reason to Our Political Discourse

women talking
Due to recent events, there has been a great deal of hand-wringing from both the mainstream news media and from ordinary people about the state of our political discourse. The U.S. seems to be increasingly polarized and hopelessly divided. Whether it is accurate or not, it seems that things are getting worse. We elected a president who regularly appears to be throwing fuel on the fire. We have rejected civility and are quicker than ever to demonize those who hold political views with which we disagree. We have increasingly incorporated military metaphors into our political discourse, and our political opponents have become our enemies. Can we turn this around? Is there a more reasonable path, and if so, how might we find it?

I think we can, but it has to begin with us. We cannot wait for our elected officials to solve this problem. It is much bigger than them, and it seems to benefit them in ways that will make them less inclined to lead. If we do not like what we see around us, we're going to need to start by making some changes in our own lives. Some of these are probably obvious (e.g., reduce our exposure to outrage media, make more of an effort to obtain information from reputable sources, treat others with respect regardless of their political views), but some are much less so. In any case, I think it is time for those of us who would like to see our culture take a couple of steps toward being more reasonable to try to contribute something here.

To that end, I am going to recommend you read this post by Dr. Jim Stone on Psychology Today. Yes, I realize that Psychology Today is a less-than-reputable source of information on psychology and that pointing you toward it may seem to contradict what I said above about obtaining information from reputable sources. While I would not look to Psychology Today to provide accurate information about psychology, this is a blog post reflecting Dr. Stone's opinion on this topic. Regardless of the source, I think it is worth a look.

He opens the post effectively and in a manner sure to grab our attention.
This post is for people who wish they could have more reasonable political discussions on social media, and fewer that end in the words "Nazi" or "Libtard".
Yes! Clearly, this post is for people like me. He then takes us through the political compass, something with which most people will likely be familiar, before getting to the meat of his post: the Twitter compass.

I do not think any of this is specific to Twitter. If you use any social media, this will be relevant. And even if you don't use social media at all, much of it will still be relevant. The basic idea is that people vary not only in their liberal (or "progressive" as Dr. Stone seems to prefer) or conservative bent but also in how reasonable they are. Believe it or not, there are reasonable conservatives and reasonable liberals!

First, Dr. Stone suggests that reasonable liberals seek out reasonable conservatives and that reasonable conservatives seek out reasonable liberals. Seek them out for what purpose? Discussion, dialogue, learning from one another, reducing our polarization and tribalism, etc. I agree with this recommendation and have found it to be quite helpful. Second, he suggests that reasonable liberals avoid unreasonable conservatives and that reasonable conservatives avoid unreasonable liberals. I agree here too. Third, Dr. Stone recommends that reasonable liberals "manage and represent" unreasonable liberals and that reasonable conservatives do the same with unreasonable conservatives. That is, the reasonable people in each camp ought to manage the unreasonable people in their own camp. I'm not so sure about this, mostly because I have yet to see it work, but I'll set that aside for now.

I really like most of what Dr. Stone is going for here. We are far too used to sticking to our ideological bubbles and only interacting with those who share our political views. This is not helping. To progress beyond it, we should seek out reasonable people outside our bubbles and engage with them. I think there is a great deal to be gained here. And yes, it is also important to avoid getting drawn into unproductive and pointless interactions with the unreasonable people on the other side. Little good comes from that. Where I struggle is with the notion that any of us should take on the responsibility of trying to represent or manage the unreasonable people in our camp. In theory, this makes sense. In practice, I question whether it works.

When I run across unreasonable liberals, I do try to represent their interests to some degree because even though they are being unreasonable, we usually have some shared interests. Perhaps an unreasonable liberal is expressing a pro-choice position but doing so in a really counterproductive way. Because I share her pro-choice views, it makes sense that I might want to represent them more effectively. But what about the "managing them" part?
By "managing your own side," in the context of social media discussions, I'm mostly talking about calling unreasonable people on your side out for their unreasonableness (while still representing their valid concerns).
Okay, that's what I was afraid of. More of this "calling out" nonsense. I remain unconvinced that this accomplishes anything positive, but I am willing to hear Dr. Stone out and give some more thought to what he says on this point. I recognize that I have become somewhat unreasonable in the sense that suggestions about calling people out have become like nails on a chalkboard. That's my issue, and I need to work through it.

Even if I remain unconvinced that there is anything to be gained by "calling out" the many unreasonable liberals I see on social media, I find Dr. Stone's post to be one of the more timely and thought-provoking things I have encountered on the Internets in some time. No, that does not mean I agree with every word of it. What it does mean is that I think it provides some excellent suggestions for what every one of us can do as individuals to improve the discourse and work to reduce some of the polarization and tribalism that have degraded our democracy.