Sunday, March 15, 2015

Civility in politics

If you follow politics at all, you have probably heard people complain that our political discourse has become dangerously rude and argumentative.  Whether this is actually true is open to question; at least members of Congress haven't started beating each other senseless in the Capitol.  But I don't deny that many people today substitute ad hominem attacks in place of arguments, and this does nothing for the health of our democracy.

The good news is, I have an easy solution to promoting civility in politics:  whenever you discuss an issue with someone, don't say anything you would not say to your best friend.  If you were arguing politics with your best friend, you would assume that his intentions were good.  If he was wrong about the issue, it would be because he misunderstood the consequences of his position.  You would not assume that your best friend had a secret motive, that he or she really did not want the best outcome for the country but instead had some selfish goal in mind that he didn't want to admit.  You would take his argument at face value and debate it rather than dismissing his argument as a ruse and attacking his actual but unstated motives.

The rule, in short, is this:  argue with others as you would argue with a close friend; in particular, assume that the other person sincerely believes what he says and believes that his policy choice would lead to the best outcome for everyone.  If we all followed this rule, there would hardly be any incivility left in public discourse.  Even if only some people followed this rule, it would still be a major advance if they followed through by insisting on the same standards from other people on their side.  Of course, they would never convince everyone, but they could change the tenor of the debate by announcing that they have no respect for political commentary that questions the motivations of their opponents rather than addressing the substance of their arguments.  It may not marginalize those who persist in such attacks, but at least it would offer an alternative for people who want a serious debate.

You may feel at this point:  that is all well and good, but what if my political opponents really do have hidden, selfish motives that they shroud in positive-sounding rhetoric?  That is possible, of course.  But remember that if you really think that, and if you think that attacking their secret motives is the only way to defeat them, then you really do not want civil debate.  There is no grounds for a debate if you do not take your opponents' arguments seriously.  You have assessed that they are liars and you are attempting to expose their fraud; this is the form of a prosecution, not a rational debate to arrive at the truth.

I would ask you to consider in this case if attacking someone's secret motives really is the best way to advance your political position.  If the person really doesn't believe the arguments that he puts forward to convince people, shouldn't you be able to defeat those arguments easily enough?  And if you do, what are your opponents going to do at that point, since they dare not expose their own selfish motives?  If, on the other hand, you find you can't make headway against the ostensible arguments advanced by the opposition, isn't it possible that those arguments are actually valid?  Perhaps, even if your opponents do have selfish motives that they are concealing in the debate, their position is the more just in spite of their hidden agenda?

You may reject my argument and persist in believing that the best, or perhaps the only, way to defeat the opposition consists in laying bare their selfish aims and ignoring their arguments.  Just remember that if you do this, you are not asking for a civil debate.  You are declaring that your opponents are outside of civil debate; that they are only engaging in it fraudulently, and that the terms of civility do not apply.  You can want a more civil debate, or you can attack your opponents' motivation; you can't do both at the same time.

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