Friday, June 19, 2009

My Crazies Are Better Than Your Crazies

By John Gilstrap

My home city, Washington, DC, is blessed with a vast community of writers. Every three or four months, my dear friend Dan Moldea pulls a bunch of us together for an Authors’ Dinner at the Old Europe Restaurant in Georgetown. The one requirement to be a “member” of the otherwise non-exclusive group is to be a published author.

As you might expect for Washington, non-fiction outnumbers fiction ten-to-one, and the politics of the room lean decidedly to the left. My own lean a bit to the right, as do those of a few other members, and this is a group that loves to talk politics. And you know what? It remains civil throughout.

Most writers I know are intellectually honest; they understand that two people can easily view a set of facts and draw entirely different conclusions. It’s refreshing. People accept that a well-reasoned position is at least, well, reasonable. Discussions get heated from time to time, but the heat is 99% passion, not anger. I’m certain that few minds are changed, but at least people listen. How rare is that in this day and age?

I’ve been an avid debater of issues for as long as I can remember, and here’s what a lifetime of political discussions has taught me: Most “liberals” and “conservatives” are actually “moderates” whose political outlooks hover somewhere between 47 and 53 on my imagined 100-point political spectrum. Why, then, are the airwaves filled with take-no-prisoners extremists on every significant issue?

Come to think of it, when did it become so offensive to discuss politics among friends? Why is it so offensive? Could it be that too many of our fellow citizens don’t truly understand what they think or why they think it; that they are merely parroting what they hear from Keith Olbermann or Rush Limbaugh or Oprah Winfrey and know that they can’t possibly defend their positions? I know a lady who routinely asks people at nearby restaurant tables to stop talking politics among themselves because the discussions make her feel “uncomfortable.” In her mind, it’s rude to discuss issues within earshot, but it’s not rude to inject herself into an eavesdropped conversation. How’s that for an interesting social compass?

Hey, look, I’m not suggesting that anyone be rude to guests at a dinner party by putting them in an uncomfortable position, but it seems to me that silence on issues comes with a heavy price. When reasonable people don’t afford themselves the opportunity to vet their thoughts, the issues themselves get hijacked by extremists, and the debate becomes polarized by gas bags who make their living by filtering and shaping the “truth” into something that in fact bears little likeness to it. Comity and compromise become the first casualties.

For the sake of votes or ratings (the common denominator in either case being money), the gas bags assign labels wholesale to people on the “other side” of issues. People stop listening to ideas yet start parsing phrases to perpetuate presumptions. In legislatures throughout the country, I worry that what used to be the loyal opposition has simply become the enemy. Majority control is becoming a license to bully.

It’s scary, it’s bipartisan, and we’re allowing it to happen in part, I believe, because we’re afraid of speaking our minds.

A friend of mine, whose politics rest around 48 on my imagined political spectrum while mine hover around 52, put it best when he told me, “John, we vote for different candidates because the crazies in your party scare me more than my crazies in mine. But only by a little.”

What do you think? How do we bring civil discourse back into fashion? Is it even a good idea? Can a democracy (or even a representative republic) continue to exist without it?


  1. I think the discourse probably won't happen unless people are actually willing to talk and listen. I've noticed that a lot of people in DC start out with "My belief is the right way, and if you don't believe like I do, you're wrong." No compromising and willing to understand why someone else might have a different viewpoint. (I read in the newspaper somewhere that this is a result of being in the baby boomer era).

    I have a friend whom I can't even get near the subject of ANY politics because he immediately goes on attack mode. He starts yelling and getting nasty--not passion, but anger that other people don't see what he thinks is obvious. He's even implied I'm stupid because I subscribe to the Washington Times (a conservative paper). It doesn't seem to matter to him that I subscribe to it and the Washington Post; it's that I subscribe to a paper that's conservative. I get something from my writing from both of them and would subscribe to a third newspaper if I could afford it.

    The sad part is that I can't even casually comment on something happening in the news when I'm around him--just to see what other people think--because he has such extreme behavior. I don't mind discussion, and even spirited discussion. I do mind when people start yelling at me and picking fights because I don't share their viewpoint.

  2. I wish I knew. I used to work with a guy who was pretty conservative (his brother was even a Republican state senator) and I'm, it's safe to say, a knee-jerk, bleeding-heart liberal. And yet, we could have good, rational, non-ranting discussions about politics. Partly, I think, because one of the things we both believed was that conservatives and liberals basically want the same thing--good government that makes your life better--but just disagree on what "better" is and how to get there. The other thing we both definitely agreed on was that both parties like to spend money but don't necessarily agree on the proportions, and that, as far as politicians go, it's always easier to spend other people's (ie., taxpayers) money than it is to spend your own.

    Maybe why we were able to discuss things without freaking out was because we started by figuring out what we agreed on and went from there.

  3. John, I see what you're talking about everyday. We’re going through extreme times. I think our economic condition feeds extreme beliefs. When you’ve lost your job or your home, you have to blame someone. When you see unbridled abuse of the financial system or cornerstones of the American economy like GM and Chrysler going bankrupt or cost of living skyrocket while basic services decline or disappear, you have to blame someone. Just tune into MSNBC then switch over to FOX to see the blame game in action. All to gain ratings on a diminishing revenue stream. I think that until the recession turns the corner and millions go back to work, civil discourse will be a distant memory.

  4. John, one major problem now, and in the future, is that so many people just do not know how to think. They are increasingly dependent upon passion alone (the idea being: a) I'm entitled to my opinion; and b) if I believe it strongly enough, it's valid).

    Well, no. You are not entitled to an opinion. You have the freedom to say whatever you want, but unless you understand the rudiments of forming an argument and marshaling evidence, you are just spouting uniformed blather.

    Which is what we're seeing more of. Critical thinking skills aren't taught in schools anymore. Basic logic is a dusty relic. But if you can FEEL, that's held to be enough.

    Rational discourse becomes impossible in such an environment. And the first thing to go is civility. Because the stronger the emotion, the greater tendency to accuse the "other side" of being "evil." Which means you can call them any name you want, you can even throw out slander, because the end (defeating "evil") justifies the means.

    There is more heat than light now, and the challenge is not to respond in kind. I do yell at the TV sometimes, though. It's cathartic.

  5. Good points by all. How to improve rational discourse? I don't know. What he have now is no longer an exchange of ideas; they are hurled at opponents with great force, too hard to be caught and examined.

    I recently diaagreed with a friend on Facebook about a civil rights issue; which side each of us was on doesn't matter. He'd cite an example; I'd point out where I thought his logic was faulty. A day later I noticed he removed me from his friends list. A mutual friend just told me he's been following the conversation and it got snarky about me after I'd been clipped.

    No one benefitted from this. No one learned anything. Well, I learned this guy wasn't as much of a friend as I'd thought.

  6. There is an old German phrase (at least I think it's German) that translated says, "You too are right."

    The concept is that you can have a healthy dialogue and that in every HONEST disagreement, there is truth on both sides. It's an understanding that truth is not bedrock, but more that mushy bottom you find in the bends of the river. That truth is experiential and not categorical. Granted, in the spectrum between black and white, some things skew toward the white and thus could be said to be more white than black - but is it truly white?

    As Lao-tsu teaches:

    Men are born soft and supple;
    dead, they are stiff and hard.
    Plants are born tender and pliant;
    dead, they are brittle and dry

    Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
    is a disciple of death.
    Whoever is soft and yielding
    is a disciple of life.

    The hard and stiff will be broken.
    The soft and supple will prevail.

    Now how's that for a blog about thriller writing!

  7. What a great blog topic, John. And I think you're right about most of us being slightly to the right or left of center. In fact, almost no one is all of one or the other; we generally hold beliefs that take from both ends of the spectrum.

    I have a couple theories about why civility is in such short supply these days. One is that TV shows like Jerry Springer, et al, have given individuals validation to air their dirty laundry in public. Almost every "reality" show exposes way more of those involved than we have any business knowing about, and some of them are downright exhibitionistic. The social rules have changed, and not for the better.

    The other issue I see is that true journalism has been degraded and downgraded to ranting and raving, never mind the actual truth involved. So many of my family, friends and acquaintances buy into the initial, knee-jerk sound bites they hear or see, and they don't delve any further into the issue in question. Therefore, they often get it wrong and distorted, which allows them to form an opinion based on almost nothing real.

    The last 12-15 years have seen an eroding of all of the above, as well as a sharpening of the use of the word "liberal" as a pejorative. Huh? Way to build a consensus, by forcing voters to choose sides. The pendulum swung one way for a while; now it has swung back. Hasn't changed a thing, as far as how people really think, though, in my opinion.

  8. GAWD, I loved this post! Thanks, John.

    I was appalled last fall when I was at dinner with long-time friends and their two teens and asked them what they thought about the election and the current financial fiasco. They politely told me they never talk politics and changed the topic to a local soccer game. You'd have thought I was talking about porn.

    I politely responded that they'd better start talking politics because what happens in the election will have a major influence on their children's futures. They smiled at me like I was the village idiot.

    Loved the story about your friend telling folks in restuarants to change their topic because it made her uncomfortable. Now I would understand if the topic was vulgar or the conversation too loud, but just because its politics? Maybe it's time for that friend and mine to start picking at the scabs of their discomfort.

    Once saw this slogan and never forgot it: "It is the duty of every citizen to keep their mouths open."

  9. I used to love talking politics, even tried as a radio talk host. But grew tired of folks who had no valid opinion,but just puked back info they had swallowed from others.

    Way back I supported Ronald Reagan in a union house where the mere mention of the name would launch a viscious tirade demonizing the man. I learned to keep my beliefs to myself until I knew the company I was in.

    With a low tolerance for conversing with easily frustrated stupid people I have quite listening to pretty much all talk radio with the one bright and shining exception being the Dennis Miller Show. Dude is smart without be a flame caster.

    Anyway. I don't talk politics much anymore. I just buy ammo...ya know...just in case stupider gets beat by stupiderer.

  10. Why, then, are the airwaves filled with take-no-prisoners extremists on every significant issue?

    Money. No ranting, no ratings, no advertisers.

  11. I'm a ultra conservative to my Liberal friends and two of my three children. I'm seen as a liberal on my gun board. I took a test that said I was a Centrist. It's all a matter of perspective. If I say anything else, I may just start to foam at the mouth.

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