More Civilized Political Discourse?

A recurring siren song of the left is its call for "a more civilized political discourse." The message is that the hate, ugliness, nasty language and oversimplified stereotyping of fierce hyper-partisanship must end. This siren song reached a recent crescendo of sorts in the form of the "no labels" party. And while that effort seems to have lost its steam, we would do well to watch for the siren song itself to wind up again; there is a strong correlation between the airtime enjoyed by this particular song and the extent to which the left is not getting its way. As such, it is likely to get more playtime, rather than less, as the 2012 election approaches. Moreover, if the Republicans in the House actually follow through with any backbone-based action containing even the slightest trace of meaningful substance, the howls for "a more civilized political discourse" are likely to become deafening and continuous.

Now the most common conservative response to the call for "civilized discourse" is to show, via reasoned analysis, that it is disingenuous, chock-full of ulterior motives, inherently irrational and totally self-contradictory in terms of its basic logic. This is a perfectly valid analysis because, quite simply, these characterizations are true. But it can be informative to step back for a moment and ask, with all sincerity, whether there is indeed any means by which we can foster a more civilized political discourse.

In order to answer this question, we must first ask exactly why and how the current discourse is uncivilized. This, in turn, can be accomplished by observing the existing discourse. If we do so, we will indeed find that discussions between liberals and conservatives often do deteriorate into shouting and name-calling. Both sides, it must be confessed, do sometimes resort to impugning their opponent's general credibility and/or intelligence, rather than meeting the opposition with head-on, factual rebuttal. If we step away from the debate and consider what liberals and conservatives say among themselves, we will also find that people on both sides do, at least on occasion, throw up their hands and dismiss the opposition as "hopelessly stupid" instead of trying analyze and refute the opposition's arguments via reasoned analysis.

At this point, most readers will have a very serious and well-justified objection. They will complain that I am implying a "parity of incivility" or, equivalently, that I am declaring both sides "equally guilty" of being dismissive, diversionary, nasty, and mean-spirited. This, you will argue, is simply not the case. And you are right, of course. Any unbiased comparison of, say, your average Tea Party protest with your average public union protest (or any equivalent comparison of your average conservative blog with your average liberal blog) will undeniably reveal that the left is far more guilty of shouting, screaming, name-calling and diversionary tactics.

But, purely for the sake of discussion, let us assume for a moment that there is parity here and that both sides are equally likely to abandon sensible discourse and resort to name-calling and shouting. By doing so, we are able to ask another vital question: why do people, including quite intelligent ones, lapse from civilized discourse into uncivilized discourse so quickly? If we can provide an objective, unbiased and non-partisan answer to this question, it may lead to a basis from which civil, as opposed to uncivil, discourse may be conducted. A legitimate objection to such efforts is that they are a waste of time because the left really wants to suppress opposing views and "more civil discourse" is simply a very nice, albeit horribly deceptive, way of putting it. But the analysis can still be useful for exploring the issue with those undecided folks who may be willing to consider it objectively.

Let's set the stage by means of a silly example: you and I are having a nice cup of coffee and a pan of gasoline at our feet (a hallmark of all the better sidewalk coffee shops) suddenly erupts into flames. In response to this effect, I propose that the cause was a certain alignment of the moon and stars that is known to ignite gasoline. You, on the other hand, insist that the effect was caused by the passerby who tossed a lit cigarette into the pan. Now, so long as I hold firmly to my well-grounded astrological theory and you hold firmly to your irrational ideas about ignition sources, the ultimate end of our discussion is unavoidably going to be uncivilized discourse. You will throw your hands up and call me stupid and I will do the same.

Now, here is an immediate and important observation: there is no disagreement between us with regard to the effect. We both agree that a pan of gasoline has erupted into flames. Moreover, we would also likely agree that such occurrences are unpleasant and potentially dangerous and that somebody should do something about it. In other words, we have the appearance of "common ground" here, and that brings us directly to the popular myth of "compromise" that is held by most moderates, many media types and, when convenient, certain liberals. But let's take this a step further and say that you and I are the governors of Sillytown and it is OUR job to "do something about" the danger of erupting pans of gasoline. Moreover, let's postulate that the pans of gasoline cannot simply be removed because their presence wards off global warming. Our afore-mentioned "common ground of agreement" notwithstanding, we are unlikely to come to a sensible and mutually acceptable policy for dealing with the potential danger. I would seek solutions that derive from my astrology-based theory of cause. You, on the other hand, would propose remedies based on your ignition-source-based theory of cause. Because you and I see radically different causes for the problem, our proposed solutions are also likely to be radically, and perhaps even irreconcilably, different. How do we "compromise" here?

As silly as it is, this example reveals the key point. The real standoff between liberal and conservative is often not the "issues" themselves. Rather, it stems more fundamentally from the different theories of cause-and-effect that are held by the opposing partisans. Liberals and conservatives may agree that homelessness, poverty and squalor are terrible things. This agreement suggests to the moderate and to the casual observer that it should be relatively easy for the warring opponents to put down their bludgeons, sit down together and come up with "sensible compromise solutions." The problem is that the solutions must generally be focused on causes, rather than mere effects, so the "common ground" that appears in the arena of effects is going to quickly dissolve into a mirage when the disputants turn their minds to solutions based on radically different theories of cause. In the specific case of social problems, the conservative is going to look to substance abuse, mental illness and personal irresponsibility as primary causes and propose corresponding responses. The liberal may acknowledge these things to some extent, but is likely to look first and foremost at "social injustice" as the real and ultimate cause. As a result, his proposed solutions are going to focus on the redistribution of wealth and resources.

The same general observations can be made with respect to any number of political issues. The left and right may agree that violence is a bad thing, but the conservative looks to the criminal bad actor as the overwhelmingly primary cause. The liberal, on the other hand, will look to inanimate objects which facilitate the effect and regard these as significant, if not primary, causative agents. He will consequently call for gun control, followed by knife control, followed by beer mug control (as is literally true in Great Britain). Conservatives see wars as effects caused by bad actors while liberals, at least partially, see cause rooted in the tanks and the bombs and the missiles.

The end goal of political policies may be to get rid of bad effects and/or create good ones. But the policies themselves must often be based on, and directed at, root causes rather than ultimate effects. A terrible rash may be soothed by an ointment, but it may take the right pill to treat the underlying infection. So long as there is profound disagreement over the true nature of the underlying disease that is causing the rash, irreconcilable disagreement with regard to proper treatment is going to manifest itself among the diagnosticians.

But what about "a more civilized political discourse"? Well, if the left really wanted that, a relatively simple procedure is available. Rather than screaming about individual issues and policies, the disputants could step back and conduct an honest examination of competing theories of cause-and-effect. Such theories can be expressed in clear, objective terms that are not as easily subject to distraction, diversion, stereotyping and name-calling. Once this is done, the theories can be tested for comparative validity in a reasoned and sensible fashion, either via legitimate scientific experiment or via honest and unbiased analysis of the available data, as appropriate. After the objectively legitimate cause-and-effect relationships have been differentiated from ones that sound nice but which cannot be correlated to reality, there is a much better chance of developing policies in a polite and rational fashion. Now, here's the thing: most conservatives that I know would be willing to engage in this sort of "civilized discourse." What about the liberals?

Tim Thorstenson is a scientist (chemist). He can be contacted at timthorstenson@yahoo.com.
A recurring siren song of the left is its call for "a more civilized political discourse." The message is that the hate, ugliness, nasty language and oversimplified stereotyping of fierce hyper-partisanship must end. This siren song reached a recent crescendo of sorts in the form of the "no labels" party. And while that effort seems to have lost its steam, we would do well to watch for the siren song itself to wind up again; there is a strong correlation between the airtime enjoyed by this particular song and the extent to which the left is not getting its way. As such, it is likely to get more playtime, rather than less, as the 2012 election approaches. Moreover, if the Republicans in the House actually follow through with any backbone-based action containing even the slightest trace of meaningful substance, the howls for "a more civilized political discourse" are likely to become deafening and continuous.

Now the most common conservative response to the call for "civilized discourse" is to show, via reasoned analysis, that it is disingenuous, chock-full of ulterior motives, inherently irrational and totally self-contradictory in terms of its basic logic. This is a perfectly valid analysis because, quite simply, these characterizations are true. But it can be informative to step back for a moment and ask, with all sincerity, whether there is indeed any means by which we can foster a more civilized political discourse.

In order to answer this question, we must first ask exactly why and how the current discourse is uncivilized. This, in turn, can be accomplished by observing the existing discourse. If we do so, we will indeed find that discussions between liberals and conservatives often do deteriorate into shouting and name-calling. Both sides, it must be confessed, do sometimes resort to impugning their opponent's general credibility and/or intelligence, rather than meeting the opposition with head-on, factual rebuttal. If we step away from the debate and consider what liberals and conservatives say among themselves, we will also find that people on both sides do, at least on occasion, throw up their hands and dismiss the opposition as "hopelessly stupid" instead of trying analyze and refute the opposition's arguments via reasoned analysis.

At this point, most readers will have a very serious and well-justified objection. They will complain that I am implying a "parity of incivility" or, equivalently, that I am declaring both sides "equally guilty" of being dismissive, diversionary, nasty, and mean-spirited. This, you will argue, is simply not the case. And you are right, of course. Any unbiased comparison of, say, your average Tea Party protest with your average public union protest (or any equivalent comparison of your average conservative blog with your average liberal blog) will undeniably reveal that the left is far more guilty of shouting, screaming, name-calling and diversionary tactics.

But, purely for the sake of discussion, let us assume for a moment that there is parity here and that both sides are equally likely to abandon sensible discourse and resort to name-calling and shouting. By doing so, we are able to ask another vital question: why do people, including quite intelligent ones, lapse from civilized discourse into uncivilized discourse so quickly? If we can provide an objective, unbiased and non-partisan answer to this question, it may lead to a basis from which civil, as opposed to uncivil, discourse may be conducted. A legitimate objection to such efforts is that they are a waste of time because the left really wants to suppress opposing views and "more civil discourse" is simply a very nice, albeit horribly deceptive, way of putting it. But the analysis can still be useful for exploring the issue with those undecided folks who may be willing to consider it objectively.

Let's set the stage by means of a silly example: you and I are having a nice cup of coffee and a pan of gasoline at our feet (a hallmark of all the better sidewalk coffee shops) suddenly erupts into flames. In response to this effect, I propose that the cause was a certain alignment of the moon and stars that is known to ignite gasoline. You, on the other hand, insist that the effect was caused by the passerby who tossed a lit cigarette into the pan. Now, so long as I hold firmly to my well-grounded astrological theory and you hold firmly to your irrational ideas about ignition sources, the ultimate end of our discussion is unavoidably going to be uncivilized discourse. You will throw your hands up and call me stupid and I will do the same.

Now, here is an immediate and important observation: there is no disagreement between us with regard to the effect. We both agree that a pan of gasoline has erupted into flames. Moreover, we would also likely agree that such occurrences are unpleasant and potentially dangerous and that somebody should do something about it. In other words, we have the appearance of "common ground" here, and that brings us directly to the popular myth of "compromise" that is held by most moderates, many media types and, when convenient, certain liberals. But let's take this a step further and say that you and I are the governors of Sillytown and it is OUR job to "do something about" the danger of erupting pans of gasoline. Moreover, let's postulate that the pans of gasoline cannot simply be removed because their presence wards off global warming. Our afore-mentioned "common ground of agreement" notwithstanding, we are unlikely to come to a sensible and mutually acceptable policy for dealing with the potential danger. I would seek solutions that derive from my astrology-based theory of cause. You, on the other hand, would propose remedies based on your ignition-source-based theory of cause. Because you and I see radically different causes for the problem, our proposed solutions are also likely to be radically, and perhaps even irreconcilably, different. How do we "compromise" here?

As silly as it is, this example reveals the key point. The real standoff between liberal and conservative is often not the "issues" themselves. Rather, it stems more fundamentally from the different theories of cause-and-effect that are held by the opposing partisans. Liberals and conservatives may agree that homelessness, poverty and squalor are terrible things. This agreement suggests to the moderate and to the casual observer that it should be relatively easy for the warring opponents to put down their bludgeons, sit down together and come up with "sensible compromise solutions." The problem is that the solutions must generally be focused on causes, rather than mere effects, so the "common ground" that appears in the arena of effects is going to quickly dissolve into a mirage when the disputants turn their minds to solutions based on radically different theories of cause. In the specific case of social problems, the conservative is going to look to substance abuse, mental illness and personal irresponsibility as primary causes and propose corresponding responses. The liberal may acknowledge these things to some extent, but is likely to look first and foremost at "social injustice" as the real and ultimate cause. As a result, his proposed solutions are going to focus on the redistribution of wealth and resources.

The same general observations can be made with respect to any number of political issues. The left and right may agree that violence is a bad thing, but the conservative looks to the criminal bad actor as the overwhelmingly primary cause. The liberal, on the other hand, will look to inanimate objects which facilitate the effect and regard these as significant, if not primary, causative agents. He will consequently call for gun control, followed by knife control, followed by beer mug control (as is literally true in Great Britain). Conservatives see wars as effects caused by bad actors while liberals, at least partially, see cause rooted in the tanks and the bombs and the missiles.

The end goal of political policies may be to get rid of bad effects and/or create good ones. But the policies themselves must often be based on, and directed at, root causes rather than ultimate effects. A terrible rash may be soothed by an ointment, but it may take the right pill to treat the underlying infection. So long as there is profound disagreement over the true nature of the underlying disease that is causing the rash, irreconcilable disagreement with regard to proper treatment is going to manifest itself among the diagnosticians.

But what about "a more civilized political discourse"? Well, if the left really wanted that, a relatively simple procedure is available. Rather than screaming about individual issues and policies, the disputants could step back and conduct an honest examination of competing theories of cause-and-effect. Such theories can be expressed in clear, objective terms that are not as easily subject to distraction, diversion, stereotyping and name-calling. Once this is done, the theories can be tested for comparative validity in a reasoned and sensible fashion, either via legitimate scientific experiment or via honest and unbiased analysis of the available data, as appropriate. After the objectively legitimate cause-and-effect relationships have been differentiated from ones that sound nice but which cannot be correlated to reality, there is a much better chance of developing policies in a polite and rational fashion. Now, here's the thing: most conservatives that I know would be willing to engage in this sort of "civilized discourse." What about the liberals?

Tim Thorstenson is a scientist (chemist). He can be contacted at timthorstenson@yahoo.com.