Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Discontinuities and Discourse

Blatant racism, like Donald Trump's long campaign to delegitimize President Obama by questioning his birthplace and his religion, has largely been squeezed out of mainstream U.S. politics.  (Maybe I should say "had" been squeezed out, since one of Trump's most notable achievements has been the re-introduction of vile racism into the mainstream of political discourse.)  Certainly you might engage the question, but only to dismiss it.  Whether Barack Obama was born in the United States is simply not a legitimate political debate.

At some point, though, you cross a line into legitimate political disagreement.  To go straight to the other end of the spectrum, in the debate between supporters of a carbon tax and the supporters of a cap-and-trade system, it is hard to see a racial angle, and that remains true even if, statistically speaking, the cap-and-traders are much more likely to hold racist views.  (I have no reason to believe that to be the case.)  So in other words, it would be completely inappropriate to label cap-and-traders as racists—in fact, it almost certainly wouldn't even occur to the carbon taxers to try that line of attack.  Instead, carbon taxers would more fruitfully talk about the substantive issues that separate the two camps.

There's obviously a huge middle ground between these extremes.  Opposing Puerto Rican statehood is a legitimate political position to hold, but there are certainly versions of that opinion that are racist.  Opposing affirmative action is the same way.  Often in these cases there is a legitimate, principled reason for a particular stance, but there is a strong suspicion that it is being used as window dressing for a much more vile, "real" motivation.  This can be tricky to adjudicate.  And indeed it would not be uncommon for someone afflicted by true economic anxiety to adopt simplistic or unfair views without appreciating it, and in this case it may be more productive to assume good faith and avoid name-calling.  (On the other hand, of course, "economic anxiety" has become the blanket excuse that conservatives often offer to justify the racist views of their co-partisans.  This is precisely the sort of line that is difficult to police.)

Anyway my point is that as you move into the middle ground from either end of the spectrum, you reach a sharp discontinuity.  On one side the correct response is outrage and dismissal rather than engagement.  On the other side the correct response is full engagement and the assumption of good faith.

And sharp discontinuities are hard to navigate.  This is especially true in the face of diversity.  I can have a productive discussion about affirmative action with a friend who shares many of my background assumptions.  It would be virtually impossible for me to have such a discussion with a stranger, particularly one who refuses to acknowledge the factual predicates that underlie the "pro" side of the argument.  But so, who is the audience?  What are the background assumptions?  These will help determine which side of the discontinuity we are on, but they are also fuzzy and subject to rapid change (the classic example being a Twitter conversation that "goes viral" and reaches a new audience).  And very slight variations push us onto one side or the other of the knife's edge.

Now maybe a more nuanced response is possible.  Maybe you can shade your approach gradually from full engagement to full dismissal...  but I don't quite see how.  I think the more realistic answer is to engage in the debate with "repeat players" who have demonstrated good faith in the past.  This is, in theory, the role played by the "elite" ideological media.  Except...  that doesn't actually seem to happen very much.  One possible explanation is that there is no way to separate the elites from the masses, and you can't have elite ideologues making concessions that their mass-market co-partisans will find repugnant.  The more likely explanation is that almost no-one cares to engage in deliberation in the first place.

Anyway the result is that almost all interesting political discussion happens within broad ideological categories and not across them.  Maybe that's as it should be, since the prospects for fruitful engagement are so much higher when people start relatively close to each other.  But on another level it is unfortunate because it means that basic channels of communication don't exist to allow liberals and conservatives to talk to each other when they really could engage productively.  And so I'll wrap up by noting that one unexpected result of the Trump candidacy is that anti-Trump conservatives are starting to interact productively with liberals to attack a common enemy.  It's inspiring in a way.


Post a Comment

<< Home