Date Category blog

While sick in bed today I've had the rare chance to catch up on my "other" inbox, which consists of about forty webcomics, four news feeds, and sixteen various philosophy blogs. It's not particularly normal for me to follow a train of thought in any of this, but there did seem to be a emerging theme today that I wanted to follow up on.

First, the news: unsurprisingly, for anyone following political discourse over the last few years, the US government shut down yesterday in a stalemate over (ostensibly) whether or not to obligate US citizens to have health insurance. As terrible as this political theater is, it gives us a rare opportunity to study more closely how opinion and authority can come to gridlock in an argument, where "agreeing to disagree" becomes "inability to act." This is notable because it's not just a mere equation of who has the most votes or influence, but requires a willing disregard of any points or values that an opponent holds, as if there's a zero-sum game of thrones going on, with no degree of acceptable compromise. At least three articles I came across today relate strongly to this theme of argumentative brinkmanship, and its methods, and I'll present them in brief here, with the hope that someone, somewhere is interested enough to comment. What I'm hoping to find is a solution, or at least something that looks like a worthwhile method to try resolving this sort of fight.

The first practical recommendation, on how to identify and confront the tactic of "silencing" comes by way of Rachel McKinnon on NewAPPs blog. Silencing is the art of getting someone to "drop out of a discussion, either by leaving or becoming and remaining silent." It ought to be obvious why this tactic is poor rhetoric, but well-used in political debate: it ignores the opponent by pretending her view has no value; it ridicules the other side, leaving any possibility of compromise in the dust. Most appallingly, it reduces the potential of good argumentation, but more on that in a moment.

This act of ridiculing the opponent, and silencing discourse is prevalent on both sides of the current government shutdown. Blame is levied by one camp against another, and apparently no one (not even myself) is free from taking a stand on one side or another. If you're for the Affordable Care Act, you must be a liberal, and cannot challenge it; if you're against Obamacare, you must be a conservative, and even allowing a discussion where the new law might be correct is taboo. This grandstanding and team-building becomes its own form of silencing tactic, by sticking everyone into one of the only two straw-men armies. Discourse fails, because compromise itself is ridiculed, and silenced- precisely the political goal. As Paul Redding in the second article on this theme points out:

The discipline of philosophy developed in ancient Greece in opposition to a rival discipline popular, then and now, with politicians: rhetoric. The philosophers saw as mere rhetoric language used just to achieve a desired result – to trigger an immediate response rather than a reasoned one. A contemporary term for this, "dog-whistling", captures the picture well. Dogs react to mere sounds, they don’t act on the basis of concepts expressed in words. The word "ridiculous", unaccompanied by reasons, is really just a whistle.

Before we despair though, there are very good reasons to consider how we might be able to shift the use of rhetoric to achieve better results. The last article, which I want to look at more closely goes directly to the heart of this problem: a real rhetorical view "counsels arguers to seek to begin from the other's point of view." Silencing an opponent is worse than merely being stubborn; it isn't even rhetoric, in the sense that Redding has it, nor is it argumentation. It's a failure to recognize that members of "the other team" are even human.

Good philosophy, and good argumentation, can only begin if at least one person takes the position that her opponent's point of view is worth at least considering, in its strongest sense, before attempting to craft an argument against it. It's not for nothing that we call this the Principle of Charity. Certainly, if your opponent refuses to listen at all, then nothing can be done, but I don't believe this is actually what's going on in the public sphere right now. Rather, I believe we've all learned to disrespect one another to such a degree in order to achieve the political goal that we must always kowtow to "our" larger party, in a widely accepted and implicit reformulation of Thrasymachus's old oft-quoted (though paraphrased) adage "might makes right" into the modern age's "majority makes right." How else are we supposed to interpret phrases like "the majority of Americans want X"? If we aren't with our party, we must be against it.

I don't buy into this view of the debate. I believe there are good reasons for mistrusting the current form of health care as it's been structured, and certainly many criticism besides. There are plenty of good moral arguments against obligating people by threat of financial deterrence to preserve themselves. Of course, that's not the non-coverage fine's justification; the real justification for the fine is that the program needs funding, and so we have a tax parading as a fine; but that is an entirely different can of worms and beside the point. Respect for others is not something you demand of your opponent, because respect, like trust, is only earned by being the first to extend it.

However, I'm skeptical that my mistrust of government oversight alone is sufficient reason to not attempt it. No law in America is truly eternal, and in the spirit of real trial and error, and recognition of the fact that there is no practically available alternative, and furthermore the very apparent and immediate moral obligation to care for the other less secure members of that loosely connected and extended family we call the American Public, we should at least give it a try.

Added 07 Oct  A later post on a related topic feels relevant. Wouldn't want to give anyone the wrong idea.
"... deployment of the rhetoric of 'crazy' and 'extreme positions' when talking about Tea Party values and policies is dangerous.[..] To be clear: quite a bit of Tea Party rhetoric is immoral and demagogic. Nobody should be blind to the regular flirtations with racism and sexism that some important Tea Party activists/politicians deploy. But to be immoral is not the same as being crazy. Moreover, the three core insights of the Tea Party -- (i) that the national government has embraced the values of the well-educated; (ii) that the Federal government is a near-permanent-war-making and resource extracting machine that serves the interest of the rich; (iii) that the rule of law is being undermined in the service of (ii) -- are not extremist; they are reality. During the last half decade we have learned that protecting the financial interests of an extremely small class of monied interests is far more important than the general welfare. To acknowledge this, does not require anybody to agree with Tea Party solutions or even to reject the status quo (or pine for non-elite values)."