Friday, November 14, 2003

Unsubstantiated conjectures about decreased civility in American political discourse.
What follows is almost pure conjecture. Don't believe any of it. It's also hurriedly-written. Sorry.
American political discourse today is marked by a notable lack of civility. This is more than merely unpleasant; it has a substantive effect on policy decisions and on the health of the democracy. This is a correctable situation. Understanding the sources of the problem might help us correct it.

Below I list some (at least semi-testable) conjectures about the problem and its origins. I have no doubt that somebody somewhere (probably lots of people in lots of places) has (have) thought about this problem far, far more carefully than I have. If any of this seems interesting, go ye forth and find those people and read what they have to say. And if you have a spare minute, e-mail me and let me know what you find out and what I should be reading.

1. The ends of the American political spectrum have become more radicalized

On the Left: PC in academia. I conjecture that on the left this more or less began with (or was at least exacerbated by) the “political correctness” movement on American campuses, with its links to postmodernist political thought. The excesses of these movements have been documented, for example, in Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education.

On the Right: Talk radio. I conjecture that on the Right this more or less began with (or was at least exacerbated by) talk radio. I am under the impression that the right-wing talk radio phenomenon began with Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh’s excesses are well-known and well-documented (by Al Franken for example).

2. In the minds of many people on the Right, the radical parts of the Left half of the spectrum have come to represent the entire Left half of the spectrum; in the minds of many people on the Left half of the spectrum, the radical parts of the Right half of the spectrum have come to represent the entire Right half of the spectrum.

This might not have happened to the Left if liberals had been more active in opposing radical Leftist excesses on campuses, e.g. speech codes. Although liberals did oppose PC in academia to some extent, their opposition seemed (to me at least) to be less energetic and vociferous than it should have been. This might not have happened to the Right if centrist conservatives would be more energetic in decrying the excesses of right-wing radicals e.g. on talk radio.

3. Fragmentaion/multiplication of news and opinion sources/the rise of the internet have contributed to the problem.

As one of my former professors has pointed out to me, the internet was initially heralded as a medium that would bring people together in a world-wide community of thought. Instead, just the reverse has happened. The internet in general and the blogosphere in particular has fragmented into virtually self-contained communities of thought that impinge on each other only at the fringes. Conservatives and liberals need never talk to each other anymore. There is even a cable news network that caters to conservatives. As others have noted, it has become far easier for individuals to pick news sources and opinion fora that will do nothing but confirm (in some sense of 'confirm'…) the opinions they already have.

4. Polarization breeds more polarization.

Once discourse begins to polarize, pressures develop to exacerbate the process of polarization. (Now I’m REALLY just making things up. Remember: do not believe any of this.) As those on pole A of the spectrum become more radicalized, the distance between poles A and B widens, and those on pole A harden their positions in response. As positions harden, discussion between the two poles becomes more difficult and rarer. As discussion between groups becomes rarer, members of each group become less familiar with flesh-and-blood denizens of the other end of the spectrum, and, consequently, their representations of them become more like caricatures (the effete, elitist academic snob; the knuckle-dragging superstitious troglodyte or the money-grubbing, criminal corporate philistine). As we being to think of our political opponents in terms of such caricatures, they come to seem as if they merit nothing but contempt, and the problem is exacerbated. And as we become exposed to more and more hyperbolic rhetoric from the other end of the spectrum, our own positions begin to harden.

5. These problems are all exacerbated by misology in America.

There is insufficient respect for reason in America in general and in American political discourse in particular. Perhaps this is related as effect or cause of the fact that children receive absolutely no training in reasoning in primary or secondary school. Contempt for reason manifests itself differently on the Right and on the Left. The extreme Left of the spectrum, influenced by postmodernism, tends to denigrate truth, reason, and objectivity on (preposterously shaky) theoretical grounds and reject them even as ideals. Consequently, skepticism, relativism, and nihilism are common on the Left. On the right, it is common to pay lip service to the ideals of truth, reason, and objectivity, while in fact blatantly flaunting those ideals. One of the most baffling things about radically irrational right-wing authors like Ann Coulter is that they take great pains to represent themselves as paragons and defenders of reason. The fuzzy-headed relativism of radical Leftists exerts at least some influence on less radical sectors of the Left, and the radical dogmatism of radical Rightists exerts at least some influence on less radical sectors of the Right.

6. The distinction between inquiry and debate has been blurred, as has the distinction between debate and entertainment.

Many people think that questions about value in general and politics in particular cannot be settled by reasoning about them. Many people who think that think it because the examples of political discussion most readily available to them are, in fact, primarily intended to entertain rather than to inform or to stimulate cooperative thought. Crossfire is not a serious forum for discussion; it is entertainment. The same must be said of Rush Limbaugh. Reasoning that aims at actually discovering answers is inquiry. Pseudo-reasoning, reasoning that aims at making the strongest possible case for an arbitrarily selected “conclusion” (arbitrarily selected from the perspective of reason, that is) is not inquiry, it is, rather, debate. Debate is bad enough, since, as a contest, it encourages participants to refuse to admit when they are in error, thus basically eliminating any possibility of progress. Debate as entertainment is even worse, since it tends to exaggerate the worst aspects of debate. It encourages conflict and incivility and discourages the kind of extended, calm give-and-take that is required by real political inquiry. Entertainment shows like Crossfire and Rush Limbaugh do more harm than good.

Not a conclusion:

Everything above is more-or-less conjectural. It’s all intended to stimulate thought and send interested parties off to find people who actually know what they are talking about. There has to be empirical evidence available that bears strongly on many of the points above. Probably nothing here is exactly right, and it’s likely that much of it is exactly wrong. Actual empirical studies often show that our intuitions about this sort of thing are wrong. For example, there’s evidence that negative campaign advertisements do, in fact, serve to inform people about the issues.

For God’s sake, quit reading this piece-of-crap blog and go find somebody who knows what he’s talking about! And let me know who they are when you find them, if you think of it and are so inclined.

The only thing I am relatively certain about here is that this problem CAN be solved.


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