Wednesday, January 01, 2020

A Lack of Good-Faith Arguments has Impoverished Civic Discourse

A friend of mine told me that we should probably sneak anti-Trump arguments past Trump voters by not mentioning Trump if we want to make any headway with them and, sure enough, he was right because certain people—let's call them your Facebook friends—found it off-putting when I mentioned Trump in my Jojo Rabbit post. "Ohhh, so this is an anti-Trump movie. I'll pass." If I hadn't mentioned Trump in my post, these people would have been more likely to see the movie, which is what I wanted because it's a great movie that everyone should see.

So I wonder, should I compromise my transparency in order to be more persuasive to some people?

Some people are persuaded by conspiracy theories, ad hominem attacks, distracting insults, and appeals to their deep-seated racial grievance. Should I make "arguments" like that in order to convince them? If people are persuaded by stupid, untrue things, should I try to say stupid, untrue things that will persuade them?  Should I throw in some casual misogyny to be more palatable? Maybe this would be a winning strategy, but I think it does damage.

Avoiding good-faith discussions impoverishes civic life. We have to understand what people really mean so the issues at stake are clear. Then we can move forward toward consensus. We live in a pluralistic society and people disagree about essential values. But we can still try to make good decisions. For example, say I work with a couple of vegetarians. We need to decide where to go to lunch. I don't have to become a vegetarian or convince them to disavow vegetarianism in order to find a place to go to lunch. We can actually find a place to eat that works for everyone. It will be a compromise, but we can find a place. (It's Cubbys, by the way. Cubbys is the place where we can all eat.) However, you have no chance to compromise with someone you disagree with if they are being disingenuous.

Lindsey Graham was disingenuous when he said—on the same day the GOP voted against background checks, on the same day of another school shooting, and in the same sentence he offered condolences for that school shooting—that he's "dying to get some gun legislation passed but he can't because of the impeachment." It wasn't a real reason. Graham threw up a smokescreen as a distraction instead of giving us good reasons for what he's doing (or not doing) on gun legislation. It's bogus.

Another example of using a smoke screen instead of engaging in earnest discourse goes like this: You share a legitimate complaint about Trump. Then someone—let's call them your state representative—tells you about how much they hate divisiveness. They never speak to the issue and they can't defend Trump. But they've framed your legitimate complaint as "divisive" and the conversation is over. It's a smart tactic because it sets you back on your heels trying to prove you aren't divisive. And the indefensible behavior of Trump is never discussed in earnest. It's bogus.

I have made good faith arguments about why I think Donald Trump is terrible and should not be our president. People can agree or disagree (and they do). But not a single person has given me a counter argument for what's good about him and why he should be president. They make no attempt to support a claim that he should be president. Instead, I hear things like this: "Trump is the most energetic president ever."

Ok. How so? I agree that it does take energy to truss yourself into a sloppy suit and go red in the face against your own state department at a hate rally. That does take a lot of energy! Now we're getting somewhere. If that's not what you meant, you should explain. If you don't think he should be impeached, make a case for it. Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan haven't. If you want to re-elect Trump, make a case for it. "Hillary was a criminal" is not a compelling argument for re-electing Trump in 2020. Give me some good reasons. No one has—none of the speakers at his rallies, none of his hoes in Congress, and none your mom's neighbors on Facebook.

It's not surprising. Platforms such as Facebook weren't set up to handle political content. They were set up to sell us to advertisers so they aggregate like-minded people and amplify content rather than facilitate discourse. People have been exploited by Facebook's targeting capacity and now they think what they're seeing in their feed is "news." But it's not a true reflection of reality any more than an Instagram influencer's house tour is. *And I am actually relying on those algorithms to keep me and this post safe from anyone horrible who would be mean to me about it.

I know that being vocal about Trump is a turn off to some people and announcing it forfeits any chance I have at persuading them. But you have to ask yourself, do you participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?

Mitch McConnell has gone a long way participating in a politics of cynicism and, it has to be said, he has been very successful—if you define success as beating an opponent. That's how you win a fight. But you win an argument by persuading someone and achieving consensus. I don't want to be like Mitch McConnell. I hate Mitch McConnell. I hate his tactics and I hate his smug, boneless, NRA-check-cashing face. (I realize that wasn't a very reasonable claim with support about Mitch McConnell and was actually more of an unfair rant against him that didn't really seek common ground or consensus. I see why people do this. It feels great! And it's super easy.)

I've wondered what the right thing to do here is. Certainly I've wondered whether we should play as dirty as Mitch McConnell in order to win. But mother taught us, "When they go low, we go high."

I wish we lived in a country where Donald Trump had no chance at re-election in 2020, but here we are. These are the only ideas I can think of to beat him:

We need to vote.
We need to register people to vote.
We need to talk about issues and pick leaders who will fix problems.
We still need to make the argument against Trump in order to persuade a segment of voters who are becoming disillusioned by him.
We need to speak out against the things Trump does that are wrong, because many people haven't heard about all of it.
"Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or in a politics of hope? In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; the belief in things not seen; the belief that there are better days ahead." Barack Obama

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