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November 14, 2004 » 5:07 pm

Election Redux: A Call for Conversations

Trudging through the surge of commentary in the blogosphere following the elections, Kellan Elliott-McCrea‘s post jumped out at me. He wrote:    (4Q2)

There is a political theory that says that people who disagree with you aren’t fundamentally bad people, but misguided, or perhaps coming from different backgrounds. Having just spent a couple of hours talking to someone who voted for Bush I’d have to say I disagree. He is superficially a good person, but deep down firmly believes that might is right, American lives are more important then any other lives, that policies which discriminate on race make statistical sense, human rights are a privilege but capital rights are inalienable. How do you answer that? We can quite civilly agree to disagree, and go back to our regular neutral pleasant conversations not to mention a few moments of uneasy solidarity making fun of Christian fundamentalists, but the chasm of understanding is so vast I can’t imagine what crossing it would look like.    (4Q3)

I know many people who feel the same way as Kellan, and I find this troubling. Is intelligent discourse truly a lost cause? Are we as polarized as those red and blue maps make it seem? Is conversation pointless?    (4Q4)

No, no, and no!    (4Q5)

Lakoff on Framing    (4Q6)

I’m a huge admirer of George Lakoff‘s work. He’s part of the canon of thinkers who strongly influenced The Blue Oxen Way (along with Doug Engelbart, Christopher Alexander, and Richard Gabriel). So when I saw that Lakoff was speaking the same day I was at last weekend’s Green Festival in San Francisco, I decided to show up five hours earlier than scheduled so I could hear what he had to say.    (4Q7)

In a nutshell, Lakoff’s thesis (detailed in his books, Don’t Think of an Elephant! and Moral Politics) is that conservatives have effectively hijacked the language of public policy. When we use terms like “tax relief” and “pro-life,” we are implicitly framing the debate from a conservative standpoint (e.g. “Taxes are an affliction,” and “Pro-abortion implies anti-life”). Progressives, he argues, must learn to reframe issues if they’re to have a chance at swaying the so-called swing-voters.    (4Q8)

I’ve read Lakoff’s thesis many times, but this was the first time I heard him talk about it in person, and what I heard troubled me. Obviously, he was not speaking to a bunch of cognitive scientists. He was speaking to a bunch of fired-up activists looking for something to cheer about, and he did a good job playing to that crowd. But heard live (and obviously simplified), his thesis seemed to suggest that we were on the road to further polarization, a zero-sum game where a small minority of the country would determine which extreme would win.    (4Q9)

If you read Moral Politics, it’s clear that Lakoff’s thinking is not that simplistic. But I couldn’t help calling him on it anyway. After his talk, I asked him, “What about framing the issues so that the two sides can talk to each other rather to their own constituents?” Lakoff’s response was that a progressive framing would do just that by balancing the language of public policy, which is heavily slanted towards conservatives right now.    (4QA)

A Diverse Community of Deep Thinkers    (4QB)

Okay, I can buy that. Lakoff is positioning framing as a winning strategy for progressive politicians, but it can also be seen as leveling the playing field for intelligent, balanced discourse. The problem is that it’s not enough to facilitate the latter. In the first place, we need to talk to people who think differently from ourselves. In the second place, we need to be deeper thinkers.    (4QC)

The latter is the harder problem. For starters, we have to know the facts, regardless of how they are spun. Whether or not you believe that the Bush administration knew there were no weapons of mass destruction prior to invading Iraq, or whether or not you care, the fact was that they weren’t there. Yet a large percentage of Americans still don’t realize this. If so many people can’t get these facts straight, how can we even talk to them about deeper issues, such as whether or not Bush is a good conservative, or why so many conservative publications (The Economist, The New Republic, The Financial Times, The American Conservative) endorsed Kerry?    (4QD)

Well, my answer isn’t going to satisfy most people, but it’s the best that I can offer: The road to deeper thinking starts by talking to folks who are different from ourselves. Talk is not cheap. We can’t and shouldn’t expect to persuade everyone, at least not easily, but what we can do is encourage people to think differently. If we start there, bigger things will follow.    (4QE)

Start with your immediate friends and families. Diversify your blogrolls and reading lists. Travel. Watch old episodes of Firing Line. (You read that right. I consider William Buckley, Jr.‘s old show television’s highest and brightest beacon of intelligent discourse in my lifetime. As right-wing and as forcefully opinionated as Buckley is, he always made it a point to interview people with very different views, which he did with respect and wit.)    (4QF)

Let’s break the divide and talk to each other more, and then let’s see what happens.    (4QG)

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