6 August 2011

Thoughts on political discussion

Or: How to have a political discussion that doesn’t devolve into a screaming match — some rules for all participants to follow.

  1. Know the difference between a fact and an opinion. “Corporate profits are higher now than ever before” is a fact that can be demonstrated by referring to data. “Handgun ownership leads to increased crime” is an opinion; trends in data are not consistent, and proving causality is problematic given the number of other factors that vary.
  2. Accept the facts of the situation. At this point, it’s ridiculous to argue that global warming is not occurring. We have masses of data from multiple sources. We can discuss which data sets are most accurate, what the cause of the warming might be, what actions we should take, and whether we can even do anything about it–but discussing the basic fact of global warming is as pointless as discussing whether gravity is real.
  3. Understand that reality is complicated. It’s said that every complex problem has a simple and obvious solution that will make things worse. A less cynical way to put it is that if you have one simple proposed fix for everything, it’s very unlikely that your fix will work well across the board, whether it’s “cut taxes and let individuals sort everything out” or “have government plan everything centrally”.
  4. Understand that there are probably multiple solutions to any complex economic or social problem. Even if your solution is right, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the other parties are wrong.
  5. Try to accept that people who disagree with you are probably not evil, venal, dishonest or amoral. Conservatives who want to get rid of universal healthcare most likely honestly believe that the problems with the US medical system are caused by too much government interference; it’s not that they want to see poor people dying in the street. Liberals who want to get rid of handguns are not trying to institute a fascist dictatorship; they just believe that eliminating legal ownership of firearms would make the world safer for everyone.
  6. Recognize that rule 5 doesn’t necessarily apply to politicians. Once someone becomes a career politician and relies on special interests to fund his career and maintain his salary, his opinions are likely to be unduly influenced–perhaps not consciously, but we are fundamentally tribal in our thinking and naturally tend to think better of those who are nice to us. Even when we try to be impartial, we tend to have implicit biases, and when money and career and family are on the line, those biases can be strong. So don’t trust politicians of any party — but do recognize that their apparent untrustworthiness isn’t entirely their fault, and is more of a systemic problem.
  7. Understand that the media lies to you. If a newspaper tells you that your taxes have gone up, you need to go look at the actual numbers. If they tell you that a recent study shows that nuclear power causes cancer, you need to look at the abstract of the study carefully and see what it actually says. This applies to all media sources. It’s not that TV and newspapers have a left wing or right wing bias; rather, their bias is towards laziness and reporting what furthers their corporate interests.
  8. Remember that individuals are individual. Even if you think the majority of Christians are idiots, that doesn’t mean you’re not talking to a smart one. You may think homosexuals are all promiscuous, and may even have objective data that seems to prove it–but you could be talking to one who’s celibate.

Anyone have any other ideas?

© mathew 2017