“Stupid” debates and other dumb extremes

At this site we are all about having civilized discourse. That doesn’t mean that we don’t deal with our uncivilized culture in politics. Our political culture follows our media culture – the more extreme and dumbed down, the more attention it gets. It does not speak well of us as a people that we have let it get this bad. We are partially responsible for tuning into the trainwrecks that pass for political discussion, the other part of that responsibility lies with the marketers of media, candidates, politicians – they go for the knee jerks emotional responses. Chris Wallace, a well known Fox news personality and debate moderator has even said of the debates, “”They’re all stupid. It’s like you’re tuning in to a car race, you really want to see if there’s a wreck.” That’s especially poignant consider a study came out recently that reported that people who watched Fox news were more poorly informed than those who  watched no news at all. We all know it and no one seems to know what to do about it; what passes for news in our media culture is sensationalist entertainment with a scant sprinkling of relevant facts that pertain to our lives. The creators know what sells more ads and gets more viewers in our hyper-consumer, hyper-celebrity culture – sex, food, and fireworks.

As humans, our brains are hard wired to think of three things before anything else in our lives to insure our species survival: we need food, we need shelter/security, and we need to procreate. What that means to media producers (and campaign strategists) is that triggering emotions around those survival instincts can “win” attention more easily than any other cognitive processes. Thinking about election reform, foreign policy, or any “policy” for that matter, takes a back seat when anything titilating, gruesome, or tasty comes into view. We are like raccoons with sparkly objects, we can hardly resist these reptilian prompts, they go right to our anthropological centers. We developed these sensitivities because, until very recently, we needed them to continue the species. Now it seems they may also prove to be the demise of the species; while we are mesmerized by the fireworks of conflict, we are not being active participants in democracy.

Another explosively controversial study has emerged, reported by LiveScience, this one find a correlation between low intelligence, right-wing ideology, and racism. It not only finds these links but begins to explain why. All of the findings support the idea put forth in my last post that a conservative mindset supports a system of beliefs that relies on direct causes while a progressive mindset relies on multiple causes. It makes sense when you consider that the subjects who were evaluated to be socially conservative, that is using a traditional, authoritarian value set, simply did not have experience with the “outsiders” of their world view – whether it was gay people, different colored people, or foreign anything. Interacting with people and issues that you are not familiar with is mentally taxing; some folks would rather eschew it all together. Those folks tend to be socially conservative. This is extremely touchy because it seems to state empirical evidence that one political ideology is racist, ignorant, and lazy while the other is more learned and worldly – that’s not quite it.

The article is careful to point out that taking either a conservative or liberal ideology to the extreme is dumb. This also supports the CivilTongue idea that we must learn how to interact respectfully with our fellow citizens, regardless of their ideology. We cannot assume that all Republicans are represented by extremist pundits, or vice versa. That is because at each ideological extreme, an oversimplification occurs and we are right back to believing that all issues are direct – not multiply – causational.

The bottom line of a socially conservative ideology is that the world is dangerous and outsiders are threats, the opposite extreme of that is that the world is always wonderful, justice will prevail, and everyone is smart and well intentioned. Neither of these worldviews works comprehensively in a society. A distrustful cynicism underlies the conservative extreme, a working pragmatism is absent from a purely liberal one. Fictional stories help illustrate these points such as the film Idiocracy and Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison de Bergeron (made into a short film).

Back to the “stupid” debates, even Karl Rove, Republican strategist for George W., thinks it’s too much, “Their choppy nature makes cogent argument difficult and thoughtful policy discussion almost nonexistent. There’s a premium placed on memorable sound bites and snappy comebacks. Those are the clips that are endlessly replayed.”  Of course he is coming from the perspective of a campaign strategist, he would likely rather have more scripted and packaged messaging. Interesting that he is arguing to raise the tone of the campaign since he certainly did not advocate open discussion and democratic participation from citizens in his political campaigns – remember he has a track record of voter intimidation and intimidation in his own party. When someone like this says the simplifications have gone too far, they probably have.

By simply engaging our fellow Americans with respectful discussions, we can activate empathy and demonstrate that the “others” in the world actually have more in common with them than they might have anticipated. When we speak with vitriol, a fellow citizen that does not come from our perspective or have the advantage of our experiences, can only see an angry, scary person that is not making sense to them. Personal stories and conversations of relating to others go a long way in expanding the horizons for both parties. Don’t expect to budge an entrenched ideologist – the scientists even say it’s a dumb way to be – but, engage folks that just might not have the time or inclination to consider the issues that are important to you in the manner you care about them. We are all busy and inundated with life; “others” exist in all ideologies in all imaginable spectrums. Give each other the benefit of the doubt and take a risk, share your values first, and maybe we can make a dent in the “stupid” bickering culture we find ourselves in. Let’s raise the bar and keep a civil tongue.

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3 thoughts on ““Stupid” debates and other dumb extremes

  1. lil dd says:

    The study correlating low i.q. with conservative values is interesting. If anything, it shows shoddy deductive reasoning skills. This relates to FOX News– after one of the debates, I flipped over from CNN to FOX, and FOX only had commentators from the same side with no opposing viewpoint!

  2. There’s no incentive for civil discourse at any level. I think that’s the central problem and it’s probably intractable.

    I don’t mean to say it’s hopeless — only that any kind of cultural change will be happening for reasons other than “Guys, we need to fix politics.” I think the central insight of the modern Military Industrial state that cropped up post WWII was that you can actually run a nation quite effectively with an utterly dysfunctional quasi-democracy. The real levers of power were methodically divested from elected offices and into the hands of technocrats and thus we have the modern phenomenon of Obama, who liberals and progressives hold accountable for his “failures” which are actually design features of the modern American state.

    • Amy Meier says:

      I think your analysis is correct regarding the manageability of a dysfunctional quasi-democracy. Where we get into trouble is when we throw our hands up and shrug. I have children and feel like doing that is equivalent to giving up on their future being more aligned with my value systems.

      There is a disincentive to have civilized discourse, it is easier to turn a profit selling a fight, it is easier to do back room profiteering when folks are busy fighting. Once we can recognize this across the political spectrum, I think the chorus of “Guys, we need to fix politics” will grow louder. Let’s just hope it is in time.

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