Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Talking Loud, Saying Nothing

"It might feel good
It might sound a little somethin
but damn the game if it don't mean nuttin"

- Chuck D. of Public Enemy - "He Got Game"

For some reason, in trying to respond to Pastor Jeff's post about the polarized nature of discourse in this country, a variation of the above lyrics kept popping into my head. In three lines, it describes the situation perfectly.

It feels good to unleash “righteous” indignation. In fact, it feels so good that the indignation doesn't even have to be all that righteous. The results are predictable: as I said a while ago,
Both sides have lost all perspective on, well, perspective. Any setback or dissonant opinion is the worst thing ever, be it “unpatriotic” or “McCarthyite,” or whatever incendiary language you want to use.
And it makes for good, dramatic soundbites - it might, in fact, sound a little something. But in that theatricality, actual meaning is lost, nothing is actually said, and we are left with mere symbolism: Different markers for different levels of "I disagree. And just how evil is my opponent for holding his opposing opinions?"

So where does that leave us? In an age where the most people are most definitely not interested in nuance, such tactics are usually effective. And it is difficult for "counter-speech" to be effective, So one is almost forced to fight fire with fire. And here we are, not saying anything at all, damn the game.

The first trouble spot in finding a way out of the hole is to get people to realize that it doesn't matter who started it, or who is worse. We can have our opinions about that, I'm sure, but It. Just. Doesn't. Matter. There is no such thing as "a little bit out of bounds", and arguing about who is furthest from the line is pointless (see the comments to that post for a demonstration) . In gambling parlance, this would be described as "throwing good money after bad" or "chasing" - it really doesn't much matter how we got into this hole, we just need to find a way out.

It is unrealistic to expect a cooperative solution to be implemented as long as at least one party treats the game as zero-sum (which, incidentally, is a fairly powerful argument against duopololistic politics on its own). The incentive to “cheat” in such a game inevitably leads to the prisoner's dilemma equilibrium of severe punishment for all.

Which means that someone needs to find an effective unilateral solution. Simply "taking the high-road" has been demonstrated not to work. So where does that leave us? Jeff suggests each side disciplining its own, and that sounds good in theory--but politicians are by nature opportunists. Such a stand-down would only last as long as it is convenient.

An idea that has been bubbling in my head is that it is time for the political equivalent of "non-violent" resistance. The details are unclear to me: The press being what it is, simply not answering attacks will be reported as weakness, or retreat, or whatever, so neutralizing that response is imperative.

In my mind, one of the iconic American moments is "have you no decency, sir?" Admittedly, my perception of that event is different from the reality, but I really hope for and event like that, after which the pushback against such tactics reaches a tipping point, and they become simply unacceptable. But critical to that is us. As long as voters do not punish, and in fact reward such things, they will continue.

1 comment:

Pastor_Jeff said...


You sell yourelf short, sir - a great, and creative, post. I would never have come up with Chuck D.

The idea that is coming to me is related to your "non-violent response." What I mean is that we have to try something along the lines of what Jesus said -- not rolling over and playing dead, but being consistently kind and gracious while staying on message.

Here's how it would work: Some person on the fringe tries to draw you into their outrage over something (even assume it really is outrageous). Instead of buying in, you try to talk him back from the edge -- model a calm response instead of anxiety, encourage him to speak reasonably and not see things through a pure good vs. evil filter.

The trick is this will only work with people on "our" side of the chasm. Those on the other side will not listen at all.

It will be hard. You'll get your kindness and grace thrown back at you. You'll be accused of being the enemy. You'll be tempted to give in to outrage.

But if we can consistently apply reason, graciousness and patience, I think reasonable people can be won over.

What do you think?