Tag Archives: public discourse

Talking About What We Understand

One of the bloggers I follow is Doug Masson, a thoughtful and impressively erudite observer of the circus that is current American politics. I was especially struck by his recent post on the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, and mainland American preoccupations.

Puerto Rico is suffering. Like a lot. 3.4 million Americans have been without power for 5 days and the prospect of getting the electric grid up and running seems to be distant. 90% of the distribution system may have been destroyed. 91% of cellphone sites are also out of service, according to the FCC.

Despite this crisis, I’ve been hearing more about whether football players will stand or kneel during a game. Judging from the emotional energy spent online during the past couple of days, the manner in which sports professionals choose to observe the national anthem and conduct their protest is more alarming than the prospect of 3.4 million Americans facing a humanitarian crisis. Hell, I’m guilty of knowing and talking more about Kaepernick than what’s going on in San Juan which is, by the way, the only Puerto Rican city I can name without looking at a map.

Masson is certainly not alone in pointing out the difference in what I might call the “emotional investment” in these two issues. He is, however, the only one to point out a disquieting reason for that difference: something he identifies as the “bike shedding effect.” That is a term I had not previously encountered (and I’m not entirely clear on its derivation even after reading his post). Masson shares an illustration:

He provides the example of a fictional committee whose job was to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant spending the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed, while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself, which is far more important and a far more difficult and complex task.

This example really hit home, because it was reminiscent of an experience my husband shared with me some twenty years ago. He was the architect for a new school building, and he was presenting the preliminary plans at a school board meeting. He anticipated a number of significant questions about the design–everything from room sizes to emergency exits to features affecting pedagogy–but the only discussion the board engaged in centered on the size of the elevator for handicapped individuals, and whether it should be large enough to accommodate one wheel chair or two.

The Board spent over an hour on that issue. No other was raised.

My husband was dumbfounded. On his way out of the meeting, he ran into a friend and shared his befuddlement; the friend–who was pretty savvy–just smiled and said, “You know, people talk about what they can understand.”

As Masson goes on to explain in his post, it’s relatively simple to form an opinion about what respect for the flag entails (and whether and how people of color should complain when the country doesn’t live up to its ideals). Whether those attitudes are knee-jerk or considered, they’re relatively straightforward.

Puerto Rico is another matter. Significant numbers of mainland Americans aren’t even aware that Puerto Ricans are American citizens (I have my doubts whether Trump knew that before the hurricane–after all, they’re brown people). Relatively few of us have traveled there, have relatives there, know much about it, or know what FEMA is or should be doing in the face of massive devastation.

So we talk about what we (think we) understand. That’s rather obviously what Trump is doing with his diatribes against the NFL.

The problem is, as America’s problems mount, it becomes very clear that there are so many pressing, important issues that most of us don’t understand. (Guess what! Obamacare and the ACA are the same thing…) But rather than informing ourselves about them–we focus on  recent TV shows, or an outrageous celebrity, or “those people” who disagree with us.

And then we wonder why democracy doesn’t work.

Worthwhile Reminders

I finally got around to reading “Healing the Heart of Democracy” by Parker Palmer yesterday, and was struck by his observation that it isn’t disagreement that makes our politics so contentious–it is demonization.

Back in the day, as they say, I remember Dick Lugar responding to challenges by saying “That’s an issue upon which people of good faith can differ.” By the time he was attacked by Tea Party purists, that simple recognition–that otherwise good people can differ in their analysis of a situation–had become heresy in some precincts.

When we de-humanize those who disagree with us, we make conversation–and conversion–impossible. I’ll grant that some folks are so rigid, so afraid to consider facts that might be contrary to their own worldview, that reasonable debate is not possible. (As a friend of mine used to say, you can’t reason someone out of a position they never reasoned themselves into.) But those tend to be folks on the fringe. When we write off everyone on the other side of an issue, we abandon any possibility of productive discourse.

Alexander Hamilton addressed this very human tendency in Federalist #1: “So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy….In politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”

Later in that same essay, he points out that partisans are unlikely to sway others to their opinions or to increase the “number of their converts” by the “loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invective.”

As difficult as it may be in an era positively dominated by invective and loudness, those of us who care about the conduct of public affairs need to work on substituting vigorous but respectful disagreement for demonization. Otherwise, the public square will be entirely dominated by the “true believers” of all sorts who are so vested in labeling and attacking that they cannot participate in anything remotely resembling democratic discourse.

In an era where every ideologue claims fidelity to the Founders, maybe we should actually listen to one.