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)

Subclassing Perl Interfaces

Gerry Gleason, who has done a ton of work for PurpleWiki recently, and I have had an ongoing discussion about when to use base classes in Perl. The reason the question comes up at all is that Perl base classes do not behave the way base classes do in “real” object-oriented languages. Because Perl does very little in the way of type-checking, defining interfaces as Perl base classes doesn’t give you the same benefits as it would in other languages.    (4PS)

Nevertheless, when you have multiple classes with the same interface, I think it’s good practice to define the interface in a base class, if only for the discipline of doing so. When we were designing a new pluggable back-end architecture for PurpleWiki, Gerry and I first discussed the API using the Wiki, then Gerry went off and implemented three different backends simultaneously. Today, I created a base class for those backends, and in the process of subclassing them, I discovered a bunch of inconsistencies and subtle bugs in the implementation. The point is not that Gerry is a sloppy programmer. Anyone would have made the same mistakes in the process of implementing a new architecture quickly, especially doing (and learning from) multiple implementations simultaneously. The point is that the process of creating a base class forced us to rigorously examine the interfaces of each implementation. Even though Perl doesn’t do as much as it could with base classes, the processing of implementing base classes and subclassing them forces us to do our own checking, which results in better code.    (4PT)

Perl doesn’t leave you totally helpless when it comes to base classes, although again, you have to do extra work to get the behavior you want. For example, you can “assure” that methods are overloaded by defining methods that croak in the base class. If these methods are not overloaded, then they will croak when they are called.    (4PU)

Connectivity Parties, For-Benefit Organizations, and Post-Modernism

I spent some time today with Gerry Gleason, who was in town for the weekend. I was telling him about a Coding Sprint Blue Oxen was planning, and he asked what those were. When I explained them to him, he said, “Oh, we used to do those for NFS. We called them Connectivity Parties.” Back then, folks would gather together at conferences, set up a bunch of hardware, and code away. Yet another demonstration of the timeliness of good patterns, regardless of what they’re called. Of course, the ubiquity of high-speed wireless and four-pound laptops make it much easier these days.    (4PK)

Gerry had two other language-related insights. We spoke about the problem of non-profits getting caught up with the language of business, and thus losing sight of the importance of things like volunteerism, caring, and so forth. I pointed out that the term, “non-profit,” immediately frames these organizations in the language of business. Gerry told me that he had had this conversation with Phil Cubeta in the past, and that they had come up with the term, “for-benefit.” I like it. Even though Blue Oxen Associates is an LLC (a legal for-profit), I think I’ll start referring to it as “for-benefit,” because that captures the essence of what we’re trying to accomplish.    (4PL)

On a more scholarly note, Gerry is reading Ken Wilber‘s Integral Psychology, which has a chapter on modernism and post-modernism. Wilber says that out of modernism emerged three distinct disciplines — art, religion, and science — and that science (and by proxy, rationality) eventually trumped the other two. Postmodernism disputes the distinctions between those three fields. However, many people — both critical theorists and scientists — misinterpret postmodernism as a rejection of science. I don’t think science and postmodernism are orthogonal. You can be a good scientist and reject the notion of universal objectivity. The problem is with framing. “Postmodernism” is framed as a reaction to “modernism,” which is historically accurate, but which undermines the essence of its underlying values. I recognize, without irony, that this is a postmodernist interpretation of why postmodernism is misinterpreted. I’ll shut up now.    (4PM)

Purple 1969 Flashback

Jamie Dinkelacker and I had a very stimulating conversation about all things collaboration and Doug Engelbart last night. Something he said about the IETF reminded me of something. If you check out IETF RFC 2 (circa 1969), you’ll notice alphanumeric references in front of each paragraph. Those are equivalent to what we call hierarchical identifiers in Purple Numbers.    (4DE)

This is no coincidence, of course. Hierarchical identifiers are stolen from Doug Engelbart‘s Augment system, where they were called structural location numbers. As for RFC 2, it was written using Augment by Bill Duvall at SRI.    (4DF)