Death Of Discussion

Yesterday, I stumbled across this flowchart designed to help someone determine if he or she is having a rational discussion or not, and more importantly when to cut one’s losses and walk away.  It made me wonder how many political and personal debates would be stopped immediately if this model was utilized.  I know that debate and discussion are not necessarily synonyms, but I don’t see how you can have a civil debate without a foundation of respectful and fact-based discussion.

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Last year 12 representatives from both the house and senate (six from each party) were mislabeled as a ”Super Committee” and tasked with finding ways to reduce the nation’s budget deficit.  Democrats had previously agreed to spending cuts in some of the programs that the party traditionally supported, but it was not enough to satisfy the deficit reduction requirements.  All six republican representatives had previously signed Grover Norquist’s ATR pledge never to raise taxes in any way for any reason, so the possibility for revenue increases was impossible (unless they put the good of the country over their pledge to a lobbyist, but c’mon).  That committee was doomed from the start. And because it was a stupid idea to begin with, maybe it should’ve been.  But if they had referenced the very first box in the above flowchart, they could’ve stopped pretending and gone home to their families for all of those weeks.  Failure was inevitable. 

What is the goal of these people that run for public office on the promise that they will never compromise on anything?  What is the goal of the voters that support that attitude?  Does any one party honesty think that they are eventually going to convince everyone in the country to agree with them?  Or do they think that people with opposing viewpoints are going to miraculously disappear?  To answer “Yes” to either of the last two questions is to admit delusion.  And admitting to simply not care at all about people of differing opinions is perhaps too honest.  Everybody knows that honesty will get you nowhere in politics.

We can’t split the country in half again.  Sorry, but we can’t and we’re not going to.  Besides all of the political reasons why we can’t, the current cultural differences are not conveniently separated along geographical lines.  And we’re not going to do it. We are going to have to get along.  We have to share this country, this world, and this planet.  How are we ever going to do that if we can’t even share a simple conversation?  What are we supposed to expect from representatives that can’t even share the same reality, much less a rational discussion?  The public gets different politicians spouting off contradictory facts on issues ranging from economic policy to scientific study.  I don’t understand.  Does “fact” even mean the same thing anymore? 

Hell, there hasn’t been a Planned Parenthood discussion in years that accurately portrays just how little of what they actually do is related to abortions.  A year ago, during a budget debate that could’ve potentially shut down the federal government, Jon Kyl of Arizona lied on the Senate floor that abortions were “well over 90%” of what Planned Parenthood does.  And when corrected that it was actually about 3%, do you think he consulted the second box of the flowchart, stopped and corrected himself?  Nope.  He just admitted that he wasn’t trying to make a factual statement in the first place. 

Is that better?  He lied.  He was corrected.  And he basically just said, “Yeah. I know, but it served my purposes.”  And this dedication to dishonest discourse in politics was rewarded with an appointment to the doomed Super Committee later that same year.  A fine American indeed.

On Sunday, some dipshit preacher in North Carolina suggested interning homosexuals in electrified fences until they eventually go extinct, as a solution to “the problem” of homosexuality.  You know, because “they kaint reep’rdoose.”  He suggested internment camps!  Are you serious?  What country is this?  What decade is it?  What century are we in?  Why not just burn the witches?  

I guess that medical-genius forgot that all of those “lesbians and queers,” he thinks Jesus wants him to hate so much, were actually born to the heterosexual parents that would still be free to birth more of the devil’s work.  I’d explain it to him, but I’m guessing that science isn’t his strong suit.

You can’t fix stupid. But I still have hope that we can outnumber it if we try.

His argument fails almost every part of the flow chart.  He’s just clueless and clearly anything but civil.  But my question is the same.  What is the motivation?  Does he really want to do that?  Does anyone really want to sequester every person that doesn’t share their views?  Where would that policy end?  What would society’s reaction be if someone said that they wanted to round up all Christians and put them into an electrically charged fenced-in concentration camp?  Just trying to keep unfounded religious beliefs out of school science classes is being called a “war on religion” by some.  This guy wants internment camps.  What should we call that?  

And before someone tries to say he was joking, remember that jokes are supposed to be funny, and that congregation wasn’t laughing.  They were agreeing.  It’s disgusting. 

After my previous blog spilled out as much more of an angry rant than I really intended any of these posts to become, I’m glad that this flowchart found its way to me as a reminder to try and stay civil. I would be lying if I claimed to have never violated these simple rules myself.  Anyone who has been kind enough to read some of my earlier blogs knows that I have strong opinions about certain issues and in different moments of weakness I have involved myself in conversations that could never possibly benefit me or anyone else.  For instance, I see absolutely no reason to limit the civil rights of homosexuals and I don’t know what could possibly change my mind about that.  So by the rules of this flowchart I really should never discuss it and maybe shouldn’t have written my previous blog (are blogs technically discussions?).  What can I say?  I’m flawed. 

But what I don’t do is lie to make a point.  Have I been wrong?  Oh yeah.  And I was quick to go to the second block and stop using that argument.  I don’t like being wrong.  But I hate liars, especially when they’re being paid to affect national politics.  And unless the people of Arizona are collectively a bunch of liars, they should’ve been outraged with their supposed representative Mr. Kyl.  I wish congresspersons and senators were sworn under oath to tell the truth before speaking on the floor.  Maybe they’d at least attempt to research their point and stick to actual facts. 

I’m also so assured of the possibility that I could be wrong, that I’m generally reluctant to speak in absolutions or to rule out another’s argument before allowing myself to fully understand it.  I appreciate civil conversation.  I wish I saw more of them.  I wish I was better at it sometimes.  But a quick glance into the comment section of any online news article is enough to make you want to store some canned goods and ammunition and just wait for the revolution.  The anonymity of online communication may be part of what is murdering civility of conversation in the real world, and it gets more unsettling every day. 

And finally, I can assure you that I do not want to intern, sequester, or incarcerate any non-violent law abiding person(s) simply because we don’t agree.  I just don’t.  Truth be told, I want many of the people already in jail to be freed.  I worry about how comfortable people are becoming with simply locking away or hiding people that they are not comfortable with. For example, there are way too many non-violent drug offenders being very expensively housed in jails and prisons right now and you never hear any of the budget hawks trying to reduce those numbers. 

But that’s a blog for another day. 

If you have to lie to make your point, you don’t have one.  If facts don’t support your argument, you’re probably on the wrong side of it.  And if making invisible those people you disapprove of is the only thing that can stop your hatred, then close your eyes.  It will be easier on everybody.  And it’s free.

9 responses to “Death Of Discussion

  1. Well written and well said. The only part that is grey, at least as far as civil debates are concerned, is whether or not we are discussing something from an agreed upon set of norms and whether or not we agree upon the “facts”. Facts are a tricky thing illustrated most perfectly in my mind by the confounding use of statistical analysis and econometrics. What are facts and what are they derived from? Is it a fact that everyone in the world has a unique fingerprint or just an accepted rule that may or may not have been disproven yet. I use that example based on a 60 Minutes from last week where a man was arrested due to a fingerprint match that was later found to be the same as another man in Spain (at least that is where I stopped it). The point is, especially as it relates to government budgeting where it’s impossible to track a dollar from appropriation to expenditure I don’t believe the number is 3% anymore than I believe it’s 90%. The truth is in an impenetrable black box of bureaucracy. We as the few who care enough to debate the pros and cons. of an issue are often victims of “facts” that are tough to independently verify one way or the other.

    That being said, your overall point should be Day 1 in High School civics and we’d all be better citizens by following the spirit of the flow chart. Well done!

    • I agree that having an agreed upon set of norms is key, but the rift has gotten so wide and frankly silly, that I wonder if politicians can even agree on the existence of gravity anymore. I’m also curious if those that care enough to debate the pros and cons of an issue are more victims of the “facts” (acknowledging possible ambiguities in some topics), or if they are greater victims of the refusal of the some people to even acknowledge a solid set of norms anymore. I don’t want a rush to judgment on anything…ever. But I also don’t want people to cling to, or exaggerate, the smallest sliver of doubt in an otherwise solid set of circumstances, and then use that as an excuse for inaction.

      I like the fingerprints example. That 60 minutes story (I Googled it) was focused on the human error of supposed experts and more importantly the even weight given to the court testimony of accredited International Association of Identification (IAI) certified experts and uncertified “experts” as well as unqualified police officers.

      In today’s poor excuse for public debate, that human error would be under-reported, and the fingerprint mix-ups themselves would be the story spun up to create a seed of doubt that could be used to keep a long lasting and still accepted fact that no two people’s fingerprints are the same questioned and therefore weakened. Luckily in the fingerprint cases, they were actually trying to find truth, so once errors were detected, wrongs were righted. That’s what I want. I want a desire for truth in political debate to be a greater focus than a desire to win the debate. We’ll see what happens.

      Thanks as always for your participation and kind words. I appreciate it.

      • (Note: I’m pretty sure that those Planned Parenthood numbers were not percentages of difficult to track expenditures, but a percentage of total services provided. There may be some small variance based on interpretation, but it should be easily calculated to an error rate smaller than 87%. But as he admitted, facts had nothing to do with what he was doing. And that’s the part that upsets me most.)

  2. That flowchart is amazing, and should be a part of every collegiate orientation handbook in the country. The North Carolina bastard you refer to is Charles Worley. I wonder if he realized that by putting all the gay people in one place, he would effectively be creating the two largest cities in America? I wrote him an email today, but I think my language may have been a little too advanced for him You can read it here: Keep on rockin’!

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  4. Nice flowchart, Greg. Unfortunately, there’s no room for truth or repeat in politics. I’ve been trying to explain to Ray that they are i step up from timeshare salesmen. Everyone has an agenda and a financial goal. The key to getting what you want in life is to help enough other people get what they want in life. That is the only truth. The rest of that messy stuff is smoke and mirrors.

    • I don’t think any non-politician would argue the point that most (maybe all) politicians are just salesmen with lofty personal goals far more important to them than the snake-oil “statesmen” persona that they are selling. But I’m not sure I understand what “The key to getting what you want in life is to help enough other people get what they want in life.” If what someone else wants is civil rights or equality under the law, I don’t see a non-political way to adjust a political prejudice. It’s easy to discard the whole mess as an indecipherable illusion of the evil government mega-magician, and say that we just have to accept it and find a new way to work around, but I don’t agree. The most corrupt parts of our government would love for everybody to just accept their ills and decide that it’s futile to try and fix it. I can’t do that yet. The people elected the key players. It’s the people’s mess and only the people can clean it up. And I think if the people could get good information, and discuss their differences in a civil way, that is entirely possible. Easily doubtable these days, but possible.

      I may have misunderstood what you were saying though. I drink a lot.

  5. Unfortunately I’m on my cell so I can’t go back and re-read the portions that I wanted to make a point on so I apologize in advance if it sounds off or doesn’t read right.

    I have often said to friends that if your answer to the question, “What is a fact?” can be arrived at in less than a minute then you really don’t understand the question. I can get a headache sitting down and truly trying to understand how some facts are arrived at…like who created the God of my own religion (practicing Catholic but raised Methodist). Religion is squishy and people will never agree on it so it’s a poor example. Since I can’t prove that then how about what caused the Great Depression? Whoops…the experts with PhD’s can’t agree on what the facts are and so to this day there is a great debate about what caused it in the first place. I think that it’s important to know which side of the debate you are on and understand how that is going to prejudice your opinion. We are both prejudiced on the outcome of certain debates and they don’t just solve themselves…they are won, and therefore somebody is going to lose and the losers aren’t happy. The flowchart is day 1…but day 2 is an explanation that not everybody wins. The flowchart is a lot like the American Revolution (and I’m stealing this phrase from someone else), it is a premise and not a conclusion. It is, itself, debateable.

    I think that as frustrating as it is, it’s important that politicians debate gravity. With decisions that they make possibly effecting over 300 million people, a long detailed fight is in order in the hopes that the right idea will prevail. I also like the fact that the Reverand from NC is exercising his right to free speech and I think that it’s probably a loss for all of us if the flowchart wasn’t somehow modified to include him (not sure if you saw his supporter on Anderson Cooper…hillarious and probably did more to help the Gay Rights movement than anyone else). His voice is just as important as mine. Misguided, hateful, and wrong but in his mind based on fact and what he thinks is probably and agreed upon set of norms. What frustrates me about this guy is not what he said, it’s his right after all, it’s the fact that a major news network elevated it to a national level where it didn’t belong. People have had inane viewpoints since the founding of this country, but it’s only since we’ve had CNN that it’s been this much in our face. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe it’s not but to me it feels like watching a car wreck, I don’t want to look at it but I can’t look away. But, for him as an example…norms matter. He believes, I’m sure wholeheartedly, that it’s his religious duty to say these things. His norms and my norms are not the same but I believe we could have a healthy debate, but only if we understood each others norms and agreed upon a few facts ahead of time. What does that have to do with politics? A lot, I think.

    I made the comment about the planned parenthood numbers because I am honestly saying that I don’t believe that as outsiders and assuming an equivalent amount of accounting knowledge we could arrive at the same amount of money that planned parenthood applies towards abortions. I think both sides skew the numbers and I don’t look at either congressman any differently than the other.

    I’m sure there is more to say, I enjoy this topic quite a bit but its hard to go back and re-read.

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