Monday, March 05, 2007

Effective Discourse

Democracy_Lover dropped the following note in my last post:

You are certainly correct that civility and dialog are essential to achieving any political result in a democracy ...

DL's statement hits on one of the most long standing debates in Western history: What is effective discourse? If you hold that effective discourse is that which progresses your cause, then the sentence is false. The ridicule that we see flying from the mouths of Ann Coulter, Steve Colbert or Al Franken is extremely effective. So to is the hate speech. Plato and Aristotle were both against democracy because they saw that uncivil discourse was better at moving the sentiment of the masses than civil deliberation.

(NOTE: open ridicule often backfires. Generally subtle ridicule such as the use of praise words and snarl words as practiced by Chomsky, politically correct universities or by the main stream media are more effective than open ridicule).

My observation is that the classical liberal tradition held a different view. This view seems to hold that effective discourse is discourse that leads to optimal results. In the classical liberal tradition, DL's statement is true. Civil discourse allows you to bring the debate from the subliminal to an overt level were you can better see cause and effects, and make better decisions.

Negative discourse is effective in either pushing a party or cause. Eventually, however, negative discourse leads to a fractured society or a fractured government that is incapable of doing anything.

BTW, some political humor is needed in the world. Come to think of it. Political leaders tend to be buffoons, and need to be knocked off their high horses on a routine basis. There needs to be at least one political cartoon with each editorial page. In the long run, to thrive as a society we need to support civility in discourse.


Charles D said...

Effective is not what I was referring to. The discourse we need is one that is serious, grapples with our nation's problems, and in which both sides are willing to admit when they are wrong and work together to solve our problems.

I would agree however that open ridicule often backfires - do the names Malkin and Coulter ring a bell in that regard?

What tends to get in the way in our current environment is people who have a particular ideological position (on either side) and who simply parrot that ideology instead of actually engaging in dialog. Having a rigid, unquestioned and impervious world view is anathema to any kind of democratic discourse, regardless of whether it is right, left or center.

y-intercept said...

Ha, Ha. Did you notice how I used Ann Coulter as a bad example and you used Ann Coulter as a bad example? Simply using your enemies as the bad examples is one of the most effective tools of the totalitarian. I went through my progressive textbooks and counted examples. In the vast majority of the cases, they used conservatives as the bad examples, and were pretty consistent in the use of praise words for socialists and snarl words for classical liberals and conservatives.

The effect is that we all see conservatives as loons and progressives (aka, socialists) as the standard bearers of reason.

DL Said: "in which both sides are willing to admit when they are wrong and work together to solve our problems."

This is what is really funny. I've seen a large number of times when conservative admit they were wrong. I have yet to see a progressive admit that they were wrong (those that became neocons, excluded).

Charles D said...

I can't think of any bad examples on the progressive side, frankly. Perhaps you can make a suggestion. Certainly I can't think of any that rival Malkin,Coulter,or Limbaugh for sheer negative discourse.

I see just the opposite on the issue of admitting mistakes. I think we may both be clouded by our ideological stance and unable to see what the other side sees. Perhaps we can discuss specific examples. Of course, admitting a particular mistake is different from completely capitulating and joining the other side. I don't expect that from either right or left.

Part of the problem may also be in the ethical question of how one assesses the 'rightness' of a policy position. That's another discussion however.

steve u. said...

Nice post. A big problem with our political system today is the lack of participation by so many people. When we take a step back and look at the vitriole that passes for political discourse, it leaves little wonder why so many people take a pass.

y-intercept said...

DL, I have to admit I am extremely unfair to progressives. When you get down to it, the definition of progressive and conservative is different for each person. What is considered progressive changes with each generation. For example, Andrew Jackson's war against the Seminole was considered progressive in his day. The Seminoles were a nice group of people whose primary sin in life was that they gave refuge to escaping slaves and lived on land the US wanted.

The displacement of the Native Americans of the Western US was considered progressive when it occurred. Populists like General George Armstrong Custer were the great pragrmatists in the field solving the indian problem by killing them.

The gigantic dam projects like the TVA, Hoover Dam, Columbia River Dams were all considered progressive. The progressives even wanted to dam Yosemite! We can thank Muir for saving that treasure.

Undoubtably Joseph Smith (with his communes, planned societies, free sex with many spirit wives) saw himself as a progressive man of the people.

Rolling out all of the nuclear power plants before the technology was mature was seen as a great progressive leap forward. Eugenics was seen as progressive. The Jim Crow laws establishing seperate but equal societies in the south was billed as progress.

In practice, the meaning of progressive is hard to peg because its meaning changes with time.

eg, establishing Israel was a progressive enterprise. Defending Israel is conservative.

Bush probably thought that invading Iraq was progress.

Both the terms "progressive" and "conservative" are moving targets. If you take everything that people thought of as progressive in the past, then you will find a ton of negative examples of the "progressive movement."

The weird thing is that each new generation of progressives label the progressive notions of their parents as "conservative."

BTW, I know my mind fart blog here is really mean and nasty, I've intentionally latched on to the "progressive" as used by the young David Horowitz who used "progressive" as a code word for communism. It is a mean thing to do since many people use the term for something else.

Charles D said...

You are certainly right about the terms "progressive" and "conservative" and I would add "liberal" to the mix as well. All these change over time and there is not complete agreement about their meaning even among those who describe themselves with the term.

It seems to be that, for the most part, what people are trying to tag with these terms is where a position or person is on the matter of the role of government. One can go from the anarchist position that there should be no government to the communist position that government should control virtually everything. Few people in the US are on either extreme, but essentially we seek to pigeonhole others based on that scale.

Unfortunately, that kind of analysis leaves out several important points: commitment to democracy, human rights and individual freedoms, foreign policy considerations, etc. You might try taking the test at Political Compass and we can compare notes.

y-intercept said...

I came out a few dots right of the bull's eye. I had a hard time with the test because many of the questions were so loaded as to be meaningless.

"Controlling inflation is more important than controlling unemployment."

The economic argument of monetarists is that controlling inflation creates an environment with low unemployment, which appears to be correct. Countries that adopted Volcker/Greenspan style monetary reforms had an initial spat of unemployment followed by low unemployment. The question has a completely different meaning in the Keynesian world where the government regulated the economy through wage and price controls.

"No one chooses his or her country of birth, so it's foolish to be proud of it."

This question says you should dislike your country because you didn't get to choose it. I am proud of the good things the US has done, and upset with the bad things that it has done.

"Military action that defies international law is sometimes justified."

The answer to this question depends on where the world is in the establishment of international law ... right now it is primarily a nexus of treatises.

"If economic globalisation is inevitable, it should primarily serve humanity rather than the interests of trans-national corporations."

Judging from the hundreds of millions of people who've recently been pulled out of poverty, it appears that globalisation is pulling people out of poverty. This baited question essentially assumes that the people in corporations aren't people.

"It is regrettable that many personal fortunes are made by people who simply manipulate money and contribute nothing to their society."

This again is a baited question. Is it referring to types like George Soros and Joseph Kennedy who amassed fortunes by working in collusion with others to create false economic signals that they were able to manipulate, or does it refer to the entire class of people who are in accounting and economics? Is it saying that anyone who makes money through ownership of a property immoral?

"Governments should penalise businesses that mislead the public."

This is a completely baited poll. I wonder how a just society would penalise the poll writers?

"A genuine free market requires restrictions on the ability of predator multinationals to create monopolies."

What the hell is a "predator multinational"? That is nothing more than an insult that is supposed to direct the answer to the question.

"An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."

This question depends on how you play tit for tat. When you get into game theory, you find that in certain circumstances the tit for tat strategy leads to optimal results. However, it does not always lead to optimal results. If the question is should we never play tit for tat, then it is wrong. Likewise, if it says that we should always respond tit for tat, it is wrong.

"What's good for the most successful corporations is always, ultimately, good for all of us."

What is good for a small company may not be good for the rest of us. What is good for my neighbor may not be good for me. We should be judging good and bad based on what is good or bad, and not what it does to our declared friends or enemies. BTW, historically regulations are good for big business. Increasing regulations tends to raise the bar of entry which clears the economic brush of all the small competitors of the multinationals.

"Although the electronic age makes official surveillance easier, only wrongdoers need to be worried."

The digital age is making foreign surveillance exponentially more difficult. As for individuals, their biggest fear is that of being surveilled by wrongdoers.

"In a civilised society, one must always have people above to be obeyed and people below to be commanded."

This is not the rule of law.

"The businessperson and the manufacturer are more important than the writer and the artist."

What planet did this test writer come from? The reverse isn't true. We actually live in a world where business people are openly disparaged, and actors lauded with adoration.

Since the questions were so poorly worded, I see the results of this test as meaningless.

Charles D said...

So you didn't answer them. I kinda figured. I would have to admit that some of the questions are stated from a left viewpoint and some from a right viewpoint, and some are really not clear from the statement.

I felt that even in the cases you mentioned, I was able to figure out what the test writer was driving at and give an Agree/Disagree based on that, just to finish the thing.

Some of the questions you object to on ideological grounds. You clearly Strongly Disagree with the statement that "No one chooses his or her country of birth, so it's foolish to be proud of it." for example, so why not answer it? I think the point is to set out extreme statements and see what your reaction is to them. There are a few extreme right statements in there too.

I don't think we can find a totally non-biased politically correct survey out there, but feel free to look around.

y-intercept said...

You may be right that this poll was intentionally worded in ways to reduce bias. The main reason that I disliked the poll was because I could not figure out what many of the questions were asking. I believe that they were trying to put a very leftist spin on things, but it could be that they were just asking questions from the mid 20th century which was dominated by leftist thinking. I say this because the employment v. inflation thing was very Keynesian. Several of the questions asked seemed to make sense in context of the 70s.

One thing I noted on the analysis of pages on the site is that few people showed up in the lower right hand quadrant.

I thought the questions in The Advocates quiz were a bit clearer. Of course the goal of the Advocat Quiz is to prove that most people are libertarians.

BTW, I thought I did answer the question "No one chooses his or her country of birth, so it's foolish to be proud of it." This question says that you are a fool to be proud of your country of birth because you did not choose it. I said you should be proud or ashamed of your country of birth based on what it does.

The statement that you should disdain your nation because you did not choose it is as much of a fallacy as the statement that you should automatically be proud of it. You don't avoid a fallacy by negating the statement that contained the fallacy. When you do that you actually end up a combination of a fallacy and a paradox. I felt that the question was unanswerable.

Charles D said...

I think one could take the position that pride in one's nation is foolish in today's world. It is your nation, and like all the others, has its good and bad attributes. I would agree that one should be proud or ashamed of one's nation based on what it does, not simply that it exists.

As you might have suspected, I ended up in the lower right quadrant. Where did you end up? The Advocates quiz is a bit too simplistic - of course I got labeled "Liberal".