Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Assessing Hearts and Minds

The old adage to avoid discussing politics and religion remains a wise social decision in plenty of situations. However, such discussions have to be held somewhere. (Alas, honest, intelligent discussion is fairly rare on the Sunday political shows – the good guests tend to be badly outnumbered by hacks and dolts.) The art of discussion, listening and persuasion isn't dead in politics, and blogs, discussion boards and activist groups provide some good venues. Unfortunately, the quality of political discussion on social media platforms – particularly if one has a wide set of friends and acquaintances, going back years – can be pretty dreadful. It can be alarming to see someone who's personally kind (and even fairly intelligent otherwise) uncritically blast the latest factually challenged, frothing bullshit from their political tribe as a self-evident truth.

In such situations, I find myself wondering how best to proceed or whether it's worth engaging at all. How well do I know this person? How reasonable is he? What’s her background? What's influenced his views? What frameworks is she using? How much energy should I (or do I possess to) expend? In my experience, some people simply aren't persuadable; some have little substance to their views even if you politely hear them out. Trying to identify points of agreement and contention can be a useful exercise (and sometimes can de-escalate an argument), but ultimately it's impossible to find common ground with someone on another planet. (Plus, trying to do so can be draining.)

In the interests of preserving sanity and lowering blood pressure, I've been playing with some categories to assess these dynamics and where someone falls. Maybe this piece isn't necessary for most people, who have worked out their own rules or handle such matters with instinctual grace. There's also a danger of condescension or ego preservation with these classifications. To guard against that, I think it's essential to practice curiosity, listening, compassion and a willingness to consider one's own potential blind spots. (I'm certainly not claiming that I personally achieve all that, but we gotta aspire to something, right?)

Solidly Reasonable: This is the ideal to aspire to – a group of people who are reasonably well-informed, try to stay that way, who base their opinions on facts and evidence, who will seek out new and better information, and will adjust their views accordingly. They believe in research and value curiosity. They have a decent sense of what they know and what they don't (like that adage from the Socrates guy) and what sources are credible and which are suspect. If someone else has better information, generally they're interested or eager to hear it and investigate further, rather than entrenching and trying to "win" an argument. (Knowledge and wisdom are cooperative paradigms, not combative ones – they'd rather have a true discussion than a "debate.") Although they realize that 'the plural of anecdote isn't data,' they do value relevant first-hand accounts and recognize the importance of lived experience and practicality over idle speculation or soulless ideology. (For instance, data do exist on racism and sexism, but it's valuable for people who haven't been on the receiving end to listen to folks who have. What's it's like to be racially profiled? To face sexism in the workplace? To be a religious minority? To be disabled? It's easy to be well-intentioned yet unaware of significant challenges others face.) People in the "solidly reasonable" group can and will disagree with each other, but they can give decent reasons for their positions, and can even… change their minds, whether on details or bigger issues. They will even (gasp) admit error. Similarly, they will correct others (in the name of accuracy), but try to avoid rubbing their faces in it. (…Especially if they're not dealing with jerks. Obviously not everyone who is smart or reasonable is amiable, but I'm defining this group as "not unnecessarily obnoxious.")

A few caveats: The popular and lazy "both sides" school of political punditry views "partisan" as a dirty word, but a world of difference exists between supporting a particular party because its positions are genuinely better ("partisan") and supporting positions primarily because one's party is righteous and definitionally better than the other guys (what I'd call "hyperpartisan" or tribal). Voting necessarily requires decision making, and it turns out research and reflection are indeed better guides than authoritarianism. (More on all this in this 2011 post.)

Likewise, I wouldn't put certain people in this group who definitely view themselves as reasonable (and tend to view themselves as much smarter than others, for that matter) – the "My ideology says [X], so facts and practical considerations be damned" crowd, for example. (More on that below.)

Mostly Reasonable, but with Blind Spots: This group is like the first group, but some issues exist where, for whatever cause, there's no reasoning with them. (Some of us who like to think we're in the first group are probably in this one instead.) This isn't merely a matter of strong opinions; on this issue or issues, their approach is fundamentally different from their normal mode. Perhaps some powerful personal experience or their upbringing or the influence of a pivotal figure significantly colors all discussion of some issue. Maybe their preferred remedy to some injustice suffered by themselves or someone close to them (often a legitimate grievance) would make very poor universal policy. Regardless, any discussion with them on certain contentious issues (for example, Israel and Palestine, or public policy on vaccines) won't merely feature strong and divergent views, but will inevitably shed far more heat than light. The key virtue of classifying people in this group is avoiding outright dismissal of them as "unreasonable," and instead allows for discussion on most topics while giving them a pass on a subject or two… as we might need ourselves. (Compassion, not condescension, should be the guide here.)

Crucial caveats: Some people have passionate views, but views nonetheless solidly based in fact, and I wouldn't put them in this category. As a practical matter, perhaps it's best to avoid certain subjects with them if you don't have 10 minutes to spare, but passion and reason are not opposites and can be highly complementary. Likewise, personal experience often fuels the best advocacy, especially when it involves listening and connecting with others. (The danger, perhaps, is in rigidly rewriting all other incidents through one's own views or experience instead of expanding to accommodate them.) There's also the question of venue – a survivors' support group is a place for sharing personal stories, not debating statistics, for instance (that would be callous and obnoxious). But these categories are meant for more public discussions.

Selectively Reasonable/Narrowly Reasonable: This group is a mixed bag based on subject matter. They're reasonable and perhaps genuinely knowledgeable and insightful on some subjects, but markedly (even surprisingly) bad in others. As with the previous category, the criterion isn't that 'they agree with me on some issues and not on others'; it's that their approach to some issues is significantly different from others. Perhaps they're generally bright but cloistered when it comes to some matters. Perhaps personal experience gives them insight on particular issues but clouds it on others. Perhaps they use a rational, fact-based approach on certain issues but get so focused on "winning" an argument in other situations that they turn into raving loons. I use this category more for pundits than other people, and for pundits in this group, I consider their track record on a given topic and will read them or avoid them accordingly. (I'll reconsider if someone strongly recommends a piece I'd usually avoid, but I try not to rush into classifying someone in this category to begin with.)

Your mileage definitely may vary, but I'll give some examples of folks I classify here. I'd rate Andrew Sullivan as not just correct on his stance on torture but at times genuinely thoughtful and eloquent. Occasionally, I've read other good pieces by Sullivan. But Sullivan not only supported the Iraq War, he supported it rabidly, accused war skeptics of being traitors, and years later offered a defensive, ludicrous semi-apology for his behavior. He played a key role in derailing health care reform in the 90s by promoting the lies of Betsy McCaughey and also championed the questionable racial claims of the book The Bell Curve. His positions on forgiving homophobic slurs and boycotts switch 180 degrees, apparently based on who he likes and dislikes in such conflicts. Born in England (but of Irish descent), Sullivan's lived in the U.S. since 1984, yet shows little understanding of American political history (particularly racism and its role in American conservatism) and maintains an antidemocratic streak and consistent scorn for the political left. His views seem pretty standard for a British Tory, except when he's personally affected, as with gay rights – thus, um, pretty typical for a British Tory. (For much more on Sullivan, I'd recommend the extensive driftglass archives.)

For another example, consider Jonathan Chait. In the positive column, he's excellent on economic issues, especially when it comes to debunking conservative claims about the virtues of tax cuts for the rich and cutting the social safety net. He's written incisively about the Laffer curve and Ayn Rand, and wrote an excellent debunking of Paul Ryan. In the negative column, Chait supported the Iraq War, but more problematically branded anti-war activists (opposing Joe Lieberman's re-election in 2006) as "left-wing" and "fanatics." While discussing propaganda, he made a grotesquely inaccurate and telling analogy about anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and the dishonest Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. (He's also whitewashed his Iraq positions somewhat.) In 2011, he made an odd, pedantic and dodgy argument that military intervention in Libya should be considered essentially in a vacuum from other obvious considerations. His attacks against "political correctness" were embarrassing, as were some of his exchanges on race with Ta-Nehisi Coates. His arguments about neoliberalism were similarly problematic. Meanwhile, he's shown persistent disdain for netroots activists.

My impression is that Sullivan and Chait make significantly shoddier arguments against people they don't like (and I believe the links above bear me out). Presumably, they dislike some of their targets on a professional level (conservative con men for Chait), but perhaps their dislike for those darn hippies to their political left is more personal, visceral and overpowering? I find the contrast in the quality of their work striking. (Again, your mileage may vary, and anyone's free to find my own work suspect. In my better moments, I want everyone in this category to be more admirable than I rate them. But because of the dynamics described, I view them as cautionary tales urging humility and self-honesty.)

Selective Sourcing Reinforcing Existing Views/Tribal Confirmation Bias: People in this group initially present as reasonable and steadfastly view themselves as such, but in-depth discussion does not bear this out. For instance, perhaps you're discussing voting rights and voter suppression. Someone in this category might say something like, 'I have to show an ID to board an airplane and do other things, therefore everyone should have to show an ID to vote.' That's not a horrible starting position, but the problem is that people in this category won't budge from it, even if you listen to their concerns and try to address them. Show them data on voter fraud being virtually nonexistent, demonstrate why obtaining an ID can be a burden, provide evidence of bad faith from the voter suppression movement, and suggest actual voting improvements that might create some common ground… and they won't read any of it (except cursorily) and won't change their minds.

Dig deeper, and you'll find this pattern is the norm, not an aberration. People in this group tend to keep up with the news, and can cite sources during arguments, but those sources tend to be biased or otherwise unreliable. For instance, conservatives in this group may view Fox News and other conservative outlets as unbiased and all more neutral sources as liberally biased (even though a few studies have shown Fox News is less accurate on factual matters). Folks in the category might cite sources shown to be deceptive, such as conservative think tanks The Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, and they show little to no interest in pieces that directly fact-check those sources or otherwise provide reliable, corrective data.

Unfortunately, for people in this group, their chief, domineering goal is to win an argument for themselves and their tribe. Consequently, if they're provided evidence that contradicts their claims, they'll double-down in some fashion, not examining the evidence, or insisting that the source is biased, or changing the subject or moving to one of their favorite arguments, the tu quoque fallacy ("you also"), claiming that 'the other side,' their political opponents, does the same thing and is just as bad. (If they're really flailing, they'll claim their political opponents would do the same thing if they had the chance, or will the next time they have a chance, never mind that they haven't.)

The problem with tu quoque and other "both sides do it" arguments are many. (I'll cite a few examples I've actually seen.) First, one thing often is not as bad as another. For instance, it's perfectly fine to criticize Obama for casting a symbolic vote against raising the debt ceiling when he was a senator that would not have possibly prevented the necessary step of raising the debt ceiling (and was a vote that Obama later said he regretted). However, it's ludicrous to pretend that Obama's individual action was exactly the same as the majority of congressional Republicans in 2011 seriously threatening not to raise the debt ceiling in an extraordinary move not supported by most of their own constituents in an attempt to extract political concessions they couldn't earn otherwise. (I consider the term "hostage situation" apt.) It's really, really easy to criticize both stances yet not childishly pretend they're equally bad.

Second, tu quoque arguments tend to be extremely selective with their history and timeline. For instance, claims that Obama is primarily to blame for Washington gridlock and slighted Republicans ignore that Republican leaders met the night of Obama's inauguration to vow to oppose everything he proposed, regardless of merit. They rejected bipartisan offers and, by objective measures, offered unprecedented obstructionism. Perhaps those political moves could be justified, but claims that they were only done in retaliation and congressional Republicans were eager to work with Obama earlier don't withstand scrutiny (even if other criticisms of Obama remain legitimate). More to the point, "retaliation" is a bad, petulant justification regardless.

Third, even if both actions or actors are equally bad (or admittedly bad, if not equally), it doesn't mean that we should do nothing. What's so hard about criticizing multiple parties, but also doing so proportionally and soberly? For example, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party contain corrupt, corporatist elements beholden to Wall Street. Yet on this issue, the Republican Party is demonstratively worse, opposing and trying to water down the Dodd-Frank Act (rather than seeing it as not going far enough), trying to block the creation and staffing of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (and then trying to weaken or eliminate it) and generally supporting plutocracy. Liberal activists aren't shy about criticizing the Democrats on this issue. The point is to make things better. I'd argue it's hard if not impossible to achieve progress without an accurate diagnosis. In this case, it's important to acknowledge both dynamics – Democratic Party corruption and much worse Republican Party corruption. (For instance, which members of Congress would be more likely to sponsor a reform measure?) Tribal hyperpartisans aren't really interested in this type of diagnosis or activism – it's really hard to get them on board for reform efforts. Their focus is on defending the tribe, on public relations, on talking points (sometimes shouting points). Whether intentionally or not, their shallow "both sides" claims shut down any deeper discussion and positive activism. No matter how well-supported by facts the conclusion is, they will fight to the death over any assertion that their side is worse than their perceived opponents. Consequently, political conversations with them typically can only go so far.

(It's not as prevalent, but hyperpartisans for the less-bad side – in the case of Wall Street reform, diehard Democratic Party loyalists – will shut down criticism and reform efforts by correctly pointing out the other side is worse but then insisting that nothing more should be demanded of their leadership.)

The cautionary tale from this group is, 'Am I so invested in defending my "side" that I'll ignore legitimate criticism and derail attempts to improve things?'

Lazy Experts Outside Their Field: The defining feature of this group is their unshakeable belief in their own superiority. They may indeed be experts in one or several fields – but pedigreed dolts with little expertise and less sense (but plenty of smugness) are quite common in political punditry. (Substitute the name "Condescending Dolts" for this category as needed.) Members of this group feel that they can blunder into any discussion without adequately researching the subject (or without updating their ossified and inaccurate views), yet still feel certain they are right, and those other silly people squabbling about this issue should defer to them. Some of them aren't experts in any field, but none of them are when comes to political analysis. Nonetheless, they expect to be treated as political sages. (More charitably, they may understand a few political issues, but remain largely clueless.) They're especially prone to overgeneralizations and wild extrapolations – anything that saves them the trouble of actual thinking or research. Some may cite outdated or debunked statistics they haven't bothered to confirm, but they prefer to work from a predetermined, shallow conclusion backward. The heart of their style often amounts to offering an opinion, an attitude, a personality, a persona – not true, solid analysis. Some of them may know that they're bullshitters, but most of them seem to believe their own hype.

The best single example is probably Ben Carson. By most accounts, he was a gifted neurosurgeon, which takes a fair amount of intelligence, hard work and skill, but he has demonstratively batshit crazy ideas about politics and history. Numerous roundups exist of his nuttiest beliefs, including a list of 13 from ThinkProgress, 13 from the Campaign for America's Future, 7 from Alternet, 15 from Politico, 10 from Forward Progressives, 11 from Inquistr and an unnumbered recounting from Rolling Stone. (As you'd imagine, these lists overlap somewhat.) My favorite is probably Carson's claim that the pyramids were not tombs, but designed to store grain, which is an "unusual theory" to say the least. What fascinates me most is how Carson simply doesn't care if experts say he's wrong and can provide proof; he still finds his personal beliefs more convincing. Merely being wrong might be forgivable, but with his characteristic somnambulant nonchalance, Carson shows absolutely no interest in discovering the truth and amending his views – and doesn't seem to understand why anyone would object to this.

Thomas Friedman provides another good example. Putting aside for the moment some of his worst arguments, Friedman has a nasty habit of chastising Democrats for not advocating positions they actually support. (See examples from 2011, 2012 and 2016 parts one and two.) My best guess is that Friedman likes to scold people, and scolding Democrats and liberals lets him traffic in false equivalencies and look more independent and superior, so facts be damned. (I'd put Camille Paglia and Megan McArdle in this group as well, not because I consider them experts in, well, anything, but because selling an "expert" persona is central to their shtick.)

Many of the pundits in "both sides" cult fall into this category – they steadfastly ignore actual policy positions, their likely consequences and any matter of substance, and also tend to ignore the actual negotiation stances of the parties involved. Whereas tribal hyperpartisans and professional hacks will invoke "both sides" as damage control, this group uses "both sides" to try to assert superiority and position themselves outside the fray. In both cases, though, the effect is to shut down serious, accurate discussion. (For more on "both siderism," see Jay Rosen, digby, driftglass, Balloon Juice or my archives.)

Stopped Clocks: As the saying goes, "Even a stopped clock is right twice per day." People in the group have almost uniformly horrible positions and generally bad (if occasionally comprehensible) reasons for them. But by accident, the law of averages or an isolated incident of sound reasoning, they hold a few good positions. It may be possible to work with them politically, but only on those issues. Likewise, it might be best to stick those subjects in political discussions among polite company.

Personally Nice but Politically Crazy: This group can be quite nice and even generous on a personal, social level, especially with their friends, but when it comes to politics, they become completely different people – rabid nutjobs. They share some similarities with the Selective Sourcing group, but their tribalism is much more charged, their sourcing is even less credible and they tend to get much nastier. For instance, as soon as Obama was inaugurated, the national debt and deficit became huge issues for them, even though they weren't under Bush. (They tend to revise their history on such things, too.) They'll denounce Obama, who's fairly centrist and establishmentarian, as a raging socialist. (The much rarer lefty version of this is to denounce Obama as uniquely awful as an imperialist rather than viewing him, as most lefty critics do, as continuing and building on a long, bipartisan tradition of American imperialism.)

When people in this group are angry (as they often are when it comes to politics), they feel they must have good cause, never that they lost a fair fight. No matter how well-supported by facts a conclusion is, if it shows them they're wrong, they'll reject it. They're fond of denouncing any source that proves them incorrect as biased, and try to change the subject after being called out (no matter how politely it's done). Conservatives in the Selective Sourcing group try to appear reasonable (and often think of themselves as so), and will cite sources that likewise try to appear credible, such as National Review and Wall Street Journal. Conservatives in the Personally Nice but Politically Crazy group are more likely to engage in outright culture war, and cite Breitbart.com, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or Alex Jones. Neither group's claims may stand up to scrutiny, but the Selective Sourcing group at least pretends to be arguing in good faith and attempting persuasion some of the time, whereas the Politically Crazy group is preaching to the converted and yelling at their perceived foes. (Someone can easily slip from the first group to the second, though.)

One way of looking at this group is that they're good people, but just have different political views (essentially, some mix of small or large blind spots). If you like each other personally, a friendship or acquaitance or conversation is workable (if you largely avoid politics). Many of us have at least a few relationships like this, with family members, old friends, coworkers or acquaintances. (It can be a fragile peace, but we deem it worthwhile because of other, positive qualities in the relationship.)

Unfortunately, such allowances break down past a certain point – "She's a good person, apart from being a bigot" isn't very convincing. Some political views aren't mere foibles. Nor is it particularly impressive is someone is nice to their family, friends and others they identify are part of their tribe and nasty to almost everyone else. In such cases, it might be accurate (if harsh) to shift the caveat and say that they're good people in some narrow contexts, but not overall. Or simply say they're not good citizens. For instance, Matt Taibbi's excellent piece on that notable conservative rebranding effort, the Tea Party, observes that the angry, older, white folks driving it are "full of shit" – they don't oppose government spending as they claim, only spending on other American citizens they look down on. People of this sort might have other redeeming qualities, but their political views are comprehensible at best, crazy at worst – far from "reasonable." Whether a friendship or other relationship with them is sustainable or desirable is a personal call.

Personally Obnoxious and Politically Crazy: People in this category are normally easy to identify and it's best to stay as far away as professional or social courtesy permits.

Professional Hacks: This group is paid to advocate positions and will only make concessions for damage control and to pivot, perhaps to a "both sides do it" argument. If you must discuss things with them (or if you want to), make sure to do your homework first and be prepared to combat bullshit.

That's it for now. I might revisit these categories later, and your mileage may vary with how useful they prove to be. But here's to honesty, curiosity, research, humility, sanity and reasonableness.