Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Contemporary Political Discourse

Ed Brayton of Dispatches From the Culture Wars gives us Maxim #1: (using the revived Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill spat as an illustration)

When I offered the possibility that the stories Hill told may well have been true and still not be a genuine case of sexual harassment, I was immediately attacked from both sides; the liberals claiming that I was obviously a sexist who thinks all women are liars, while the conservatives were claiming that I'm obviously biased against Thomas, probably because he's black, for even suggesting that he could possibly have made a few crude comments. And that, sadly, is pretty normal for political discourse these days.

It's not enough that our political opponents be wrong, they must be evil. We can't just explain why we think they're wrong, we have to imagine some glaringly obvious character flaw that explains why they're wrong. I'm sure I'm guilty of this from time to time myself, but it's something we should all try and avoid as much as possible.

Partisan politics is far too much like sports rivalries. Once you begin to identify yourself as an advocate of X and an opponent of Y, it is all too easy to set up cognitive filters that distort the way we see reality. The X filter strains out any information that might cause one to question X, while the Y filter strains out any information that might cause one to consider Y.

We build up simplistic dichotomies with entirely different standards for belief and we begin to think solely in terms of Us and Them. If one of Us is accused something wrong, we demand absolute proof before we'll accept it; if one of Them is accused of doing something wrong, the mere allegation is all the proof necessary. After all, we all know what They are like, don't we?