Can politics be "just politics"?

Been struggling with a couple of interrelated questions:

1. can we just discuss every issue calmly and rationally?

2. can we be friends with people who have some beliefs that are really bad?

These lead me to some more questions, but I’ll get to that.

1. Can we discuss every issue calmly and rationally?

For the first ~20 years of my life, discussing things calmly and rationally was my goal. There’s an issue, let’s disinterestedly look at all the evidence and find the logical explanation or solution. If you’re yelling or being aggressive or interrupting or whatever, stop it.

Over my 20s, I’ve seen the flaws in that:

1. “aggressive” is subjective, and in a lot of arenas, white people and men can get away with a lot of things that women and people of color can’t. (other biases apply here too, but those are the most common.) Makes for an uneven debate playing field. (especially if you then pretend it’s all even and rational!)

2. debating is slow. sometimes things don’t change, or don’t change fast enough, with calm reason and intellectual debate. I’d rather have angry arguments and a quick end to, say, slavery, than a slow and methodical and rational decision that makes everyone feel good.

3. rationality assumes disinterestedness: saying something is “just politics” is like saying it’s “just sports” - that we can mostly ignore it. That I can like the Cavs and you can like the Warriors and who cares. That’s a luxury some people don’t have. (e.g. Black Lives Matter right now)

4. “objectivity” can be a facade: sometimes people hide behind the facade of “being objective” when they’re really pushing some other thing (e.g. fox news)

5. debating isn’t easy: sometimes debating something causes more problems than it solves. An example here is how much you question someone reporting a sexual assault or other traumatic event.

6. sometimes people are devil’s advocate goons, like white guys saying “well, but thought experiment devil’s advocate, what IF women frequently report that they got raped just to get attention?” Your “argument” isn’t actually disinterestedly bringing new information to the table, you’re just trying to discredit someone or provoke a response. Sometimes you’re trying to provoke a forfeit: where someone says “geez, I can’t deal with you anymore” and leaves, and then you strut around triumphant. It’s kind of like DDOSing a server: if one man tries to argue that to one woman, they can calmly discuss it (maybe; see the previous point), but if 10 male college freshmen in a gender studies class try to argue it against one woman in the class, the woman may just be overwhelmed and out of time or emotional energy to deal with them all. (or worse: 1000 people on the internet!) Maybe this is the same point as #4.

2. Can we be friends with people who have some beliefs that are really bad?

“I know politics bore you, but I feel like a hypocrite talking to you and your racist friend.” - the ever prescient Johns Linnell and Flansburgh of TMBG.

A friend on Facebook, who has some serious skin in the game, whose life would be made waaay worse if Trump were elected and did everything he said he would, said:

When I sometimes wander into other peoples' Facebook conversations about this election, I see a fair amount of sentiment along the lines of “Well, we can all agree to disagree about Trump or Clinton or whatever, but we’re still friends and we still love each other.” My question is: How is that fucking possible? Because I’m pretty certain that anyone voting for Trump is indicating that my life and the lives of many of my friends have no value to them. How could I possibly keep including that person in my life?

This is a more extreme version of #1. Not only can we not discuss something calmly, we can’t even separate the person from the belief. And in some cases, we shouldn’t. Some beliefs are so abhorrent that we oughta have some kind of punitive reaction to people holding them. It’s rare and gently handled, though; maybe you practice some kind of collective conversational shunning whenever this problem comes up, and individually you privately tell the person that you feel this belief is really repugnant.

3. When should the answer to #1 and #2 be “yes”, and when should it be “no”?

Put another way, what should be sacred, or what should be taboo? A good read: “Socially Enforced Thought Boundaries,” by someone named Birguslatro (mildly difficult - they drop a “hermeneutic”, but it’s near the end so you can still get it even if “hermeneutic” loses you as it does me. btw, if you really understand what “hermeneutic” means, please explain it to me sometime.) Basically, we can debate about some things, but some things are so core to our existence that you can’t even question them.

This is what John Lennon ran into when he offhandedly remarked that “we’re bigger than Jesus.” It was true, in a lot of metrics: more people were listening to the Beatles than going to church. And it wasn’t meant to be inciting or arrogant; he wasn’t saying “we should be bigger than Jesus” or “we’re better than Jesus.” He just poked one of the sacred taboos: don’t compare yourself to Jesus at all.

Similarly, just heard a Reply All podcast about a guy who was pretty thoroughly exiled from his Orthodox Jewish community after he decided he wanted to read modern books and watch movies and didn’t fully believe all the stuff they were telling him. It’s rather heartbreaking. And just for violating some of the (many!) sacred things in his world.

OTOH, new movie coming out called Denial, about a holocaust denier and a public battle about how we can prove the holocaust ever happened. I think we all agree this guy (the denier) is an ass clown and shouldn’t really be allowed to call a debate about this. “The holocaust happened” is pretty sacred.

The Birguslatro article I pointed to above argues that our set of universal sacrednesses should be minimal, unchanging, and relatively unconnected to your daily life. And methods to enforce them should be as minimal as possible. Sounds good to me.

So, “the holocaust happened” is sacred, but not “we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq” or “police should wear body cameras” or “we need more bike lanes.” We can debate all these things.

4. What’s the trend in sacredness now?

I’m not real sure, but the number of things that are sacred seems to be growing. At least on my Facebook feed. People are getting fed up with debating to the point that, instead of arguing against something, they just dismiss it or violently protest it because it has broken a taboo. We’re treating opposing views with ridicule or vitriol, not debate. An example: “I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad”, in which Lionel Shriver discusses a party where apparently everyone wore mini sombreros, and the reaction was official sanctions, expulsion from dorms, etc. Similarly, some dumb students somewhere protested because their cafeteria was serving “inauthentic” sushi. Isolated incidents, but they point to a growing circle of sacredness: arguments that are wrong before they’ve even been considered, people shut off, disproportionate and punitive responses.

N. N. Taleb shows how this can happen: “The Most Intolerant Wins - The Dictatorship Of The Small Minority.” If you’re short on time, skip towards the bottom to the chapter called “Popper’s Paradox.” An example is the Kosher food thing: people keeping Kosher is super rare these days, but stores will stock all kinds of Kosher things to cater to this 0.2% of the population, because, well, might as well supply 100% of people instead of 99.8%.

Taleb’s a little cranky, and Shriver seems to miss a bit of history, I’ll give you that. It’d be different, for example, if there weren’t a publishing industry full of editors telling POC authors that their characters “aren’t relatable” (because they aren’t white) and then here goes the white author getting published writing black characters. But these are changes that need to happen within the publishing industry (and meanwhile reported out to the wider world), not by getting the whole world together to publicly shame someone who wrote a black character badly. And it’s tough these days to distinguish between Islam-we-should-tolerate and Islam-we-shouldn’t.

Every Muslim I know, Rumi, Sufism, and moderate Islam are in the first camp. Osama bin Laden, the Saudi government, Salafism, and Wahhabism are in the second camp. But… the stuff in between is actually tricky! Where’s the line between allowing women to wear burkas because they want to, and making sure they’re not being coerced into doing so? Is there actually something different and more dangerous about Islam, at its core, than Christianity or Buddhism or Jainism, as Sam Harris argues? But we’ve got to be able to discuss these things. As a society, and as individuals.

5. So to answer questions #1 and #2, yes, mostly.

We can calmly discuss most things and should do so more than we have been. We can mostly be friends with most people who hold most other opinions, even if those are really crummy, unless they breach our taboos (and even then, we can let them know how much of a dick they’re being).

I guess I’m asking, if you can: reduce your sacrednesses and drop your taboos, and be kinder to people who break them.

Oh my gosh do not stop reading now if you have read this far you gotta read part 6.

6. But hold up, you gotta be careful.

My answer in part 5 is not a license for you to commit errors-of-rationality 1-6 above.

1. Listen. Do not ignore the slantedness of your playing field! Don’t talk over women or tell them they’re being too pushy. Don’t assume you know what other people’s experience is, or what should and shouldn’t offend them. Listen.

2. Know when something is serious enough you’ve got to abandon the slow, rational track.

3. Realize that you might be discussing something that’s “just a game” to you, but isn’t “just a game” to them. Realize that might make them defensive. Their defensiveness doesn’t mean you “win.”

4. If you’re interested in the outcome, check yourself before you start an argument. When you say “I’m just trying to be objective,” do you mean “I’m just trying to get you to agree that I’m right”? Also check yourself if you feel good while you’re arguing; that little nugget of tasty rage-adrenaline sprinkled with righteousness might be poisoning your whole 

5. If you want to debate something and the other person doesn’t want to, consider that that might be ok. Especially if you know they’ve been through this before: they might just be tired of it. Also: someone else’s refusal to engage does not mean you “win.”

6. Ask permission before playing devil’s advocate. Not saying it’s a necessarily bad technique for arriving at the truth, but consider it a warning sign when the words “devil’s advocate” leave your mouth: you might be just being a dick.

(Six rules may be too many. Particularly, 3 and 5 might be the same, and 4 and 6 might be the same. But even if four rules is too many, I could boil this down to 2: 1. Listen, 2. when you’re debating, you either both win or you both lose.)

After all, The enemy isn’t leftism or social justice. The enemy is epistemic vice. (and conservatives, if you’ve given up on my blog, maybe try this; yes he’s endorsing not-Trump, but in the goal of a healthy conservative branch long-term.) Skip to the end, part VIII. Epistemology is how we know what we know; epistemic vice is abdicating responsibility for critical thinking.

“The long range plan has to combine a short-term need to neutralize immediate would-be tyrants with a long-term need to slowly encourage epistemic virtue so that we don’t have to keep putting out fires.”

7. What do I do about Facebook?

I’ve been running a little experiment to see what it is about News feed that bothers me. Maybe I should keep Newsfeed but unfollow certain folks. That’s not real satisfying. Maybe I’ll try the “see less like this” and trust the algorithm to sort it out?

Thing is, I’m planning on keeping Twitter, and probably Reddit and Feedly for that matter. I guess I’ve just curated them better? And I kept people on Facebook for the diversity-of-thought angle, but now I’m thinking the harm done by encouraging me to get out the rage cannon has undone the openness that might come from understanding different people. Little blips of text and pictures don’t help you understand people very well, anyway.

Footnote 1: by the way, if you haven’t, this would be a good time to read I can tolerate anything except the outgroup. One of the few rando-internet-posts that’s brilliant enough to keep linking people to.

Footnote 2: thanks to Chris Stucchio for pointing me to a lot of these links.

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