« Post-Election Research Agenda and Teaching | Main | The voting/protesting fallacy »

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Three Neutral Principles for Civil Political Discourse

As the recent election illustrated, Americans disagree foundationally on many substantive issues. I’d like to think though that while there may be profound divisions on core political values, one thing we may be able to agree on is that it would be helpful to our democracy to improve our public discourse about these matters.

But what does it mean to have a truly democratic, and perhaps even productive, public discourse? This aim may seem like a lost cause after over a year of toxic mudslinging, disingenuous character assassination, and an increasing unwillingness to tolerate opposing viewpoints—all of which were amply in evidence from supporters on both sides of the aisle.

I was given some sense of hope on this issue, though, during an incident shortly before the election in which President Obama was interrupted by a Trump-supporting protester during Obama’s speech at a political rally. The crowd immediately began to boo in order to shout down the protester, but Obama pushed back in his defense, and his reasons for doing so, I’ll argue below, may be taken as three core, nonpartisan principles that we may all be able to agree on as baselines for engaging in civil political discourse.


I enumerate these three principles after the break.

“First of all, we live in a country that respects free speech.” That platitude is obvious. But what Obama said before this was more meaningful. His lead-in to this statement was: “You’ve got an older gentleman supporting his candidate. He’s not doing nothing. You don’t have to worry about him.”

“He’s not doing nothing.” The idea that others’ political expression does not harm us should be obvious too (it’s really just a version of the old schoolyard rhyme about sticks and stones not breaking bones), but in modern America, it’s not. Expressing a point of view that others disagree with is increasingly more likely to get you shouted down than heard out. It might even get you suspended on a liberal college campus or beat up at a conservative political rally.

The empirical point behind the informally phrased “He’s not doing nothing” is that the expression of others’ viewpoints are nothing more than what they are: Descriptive claims about another person’s state of mind. Another person’s claim about their own beliefs does not make those beliefs true, and it certainly does not compel us to agree with or even respond to it, or do us any harm.

This attitude is easier to describe than to adopt. Hearing someone express an opinion that you consider wrong or even profoundly harmful can be infuriating, as the level of public discourse in this past election season illustrates. But this is why adopting the “he’s not doing nothing” perspective is so important. The notion that others’ political opinions are nothing more than data indicating their viewpoint (rather than traumatizing or treasonous) not only facilitates core constitutional speech rights, it also enables a psychological freedom from others' expression that makes us free to form our own opinions as well.

Because like it or not, we're a nation that is committed to honoring free speech. This principle means something only if it requires tolerating respectfully even speech with which we profoundly disagree. And that toleration becomes much easier when we regard such speech as nothing more than information about someone else’s state of mind, rather than a threat or a harm being inflicted on us.

Second of all, it looks like maybe he might have served in our military and we got to respect that. Third of all, he was elderly and we got to respect our elders.” These next two points can be collapsed into one very simple principle: See others generously, including and even especially those with whom you disagree. When this Trump supporter popped up at the rally the other week, the attendees may well have dismissed him as a threatening, unstable crank bent on shouting down the President, possibly even for racist reasons—hence their desire to shout him down in turn.

But these kind of uncharitable assumptions are as baseless as they are unhelpful. Maybe the protester lost his job to outsourcing and was trying to express support for protectionist trade policies that he felt were critical to having a job and being able to support his family. Maybe he was unhappy with the direction of the country under a Democratic administration and expressing his passionate support for going in a different direction.

Seeing the protester in a generous light—an elderly man with possible military service—is a key step in having a decent conversation. Stereotyping political opponents makes them easy to demonize and dismiss them without engaging. Regarding a Trump supporter as a fanatic foaming at the mouth with irrational race-hate makes it easy to conclude that he does not merit respect or deserve to be heard out. But seeing that same person as an older gentleman who fought in Vietnam and cares deeply about the fate of the country yields a different result.

Much the same is true in reverse. An effete urbanite reflexively supporting Obama and Hillary out of a sense of liberal guilt amounts renders the speaker a mere stereotype that can be categorized and ignored with ease. But if you regard the same person as someone who is partaking in a tradition of dissent that dates to the Revolution in the interest of protecting values like racial and social justice that are embedded in our Constitution you’re more likely to take them and their ideas more seriously.

Regardless of political valence, the choice to see someone in a more generous light is thus a prerequisite for having the kind of decent discussion about issues that has a better chance of producing mutual understanding rather than descending into a pointless shouting match.

“Fourth of all, don’t boo. Vote.” At first glance, this one may appear a bit more complicated. “Don’t boo”? Isn’t cheering and booing what people do at rallies? It certainly is, and I don’t think the point is that people should sit quietly and clap only on cue when they are attending these kinds of events. Rather, I think the general idea expressed by this statement goes something like this: If you hear an opinion you disagree with, it’s better to create a positive dialogue that expresses your own point of view rather than spending your efforts attacking the speaker or trying to eliminate their speech from the public sphere.

Because while I said above (and still believe) that others’ opinions need not lead us to want to shut them out or shout them down, democracy also cannot function if people do nothing more than engage in calm observation when they hear ideas they think are wrong or dangerous. The problem is that increasingly the immediate reaction to opposing viewpoints is to personally direct animus or worse toward the speaker. The suggestion of “don’t boo, vote” is that there are more and less effective responses to speech you disagree with. Silencing speech tends to be ineffective and harmful. By contrast, using one’s disagreement as a call to democratic engagement in the interest of your own beliefs, whether that action is the simple act of voting or a deeper commitment to a movement or cause, is the more productive alternative.

Let me be clear about the limits of my claim: I have no idea if Obama was intentionally trying to propound core principles for engaging in civil political discourse in his brief interaction with the protester at the rally, but regardless I think at least a few of those principles (first, you are not harmed by others’ speech; second, see others in a generous light; third, add your voice rather than squelching others’) are immanent in his response.

Finally, I should emphasize that while I think these are constructive principles for civil political discourse, this does not mean they are easy to practice. On the contrary, we’re hardwired to do pretty much the opposite in all of these instances. Hearing opposing viewpoints tends to engage the fight-or-flight response, which helps explain both the rancor of this election and the growing polarization of our nation as people increasingly surround themselves with other like-minded people to avoid the discomfort of regularly facing disagreement.

But nothing truly valuable is easy. And restraining our immediate instincts—tolerating speech we dislike, accepting a President we didn’t vote for—is in many respects what defines democracy, and distinguishes it from its many inferior alternatives. It is this kind of restraint in the interest of the greater good of our country and the maintenance of our system of government that represents the “better angels of our nature” that Lincoln described in his first inaugural address, and that I hope may still prevail even after a dispiritingly ugly election season.

Posted by Dave_Fagundes on November 15, 2016 at 12:45 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Culture, Current Affairs, Deliberation and voices, Law and Politics | Permalink

Comments

You're not pointing out the source of sanctions on speech in the occidental world: the legal profession and academe. The impulse at work is derived from how the people in those subcultures view the rest of the world, something, for all the verbiage you use, you cannot bring yourself to explore.

Posted by: Art Deco | Nov 16, 2016 4:23:41 PM

Post a comment