The more I read about politics today, the more it seems like nobody really listens to what anybody else says. One person’s words are just a starting point for an opponent’s talking points, which may or may not have direct relation to those initial words. Politicians, pundits and bloggers are all guilty of this, including your humble correspondent.
This dynamic struck me when I was reading a New Yorker article about drone strikes in Pakistan. The article questioned whether the strikes might be counterproductive, because they kill so many civilians. The article quoted enough counterinsurgency experts who felt that way to make the concept seem reasonable, and if it’s reasonable that we are doing something unproductive, let’s explore and find out. But can you imagine the shitstorm that would result if a politician actually tried to investigate the matter? If Obama announced a commission to explore the efficacy of drone strikes, Rush Limbaugh and his ilk would go ballistic (note the clever missile-based double entendre).
That thought made me realize that it’s incredibly hard to solve problems when we are unable to even discuss the problems. The possible counterproductivity of drone strikes is a legitimate issue. The question of whether a government-run health care plan is a good idea, especially given the overwhelming cost of Medicare, is a legitimate issue. How best to reform our financial system is a legitimate issue. But so many attempts to discuss these issues are drowned in demagoguery that we never get anywhere. For example, John Boehner (R-Ohio, House minority leader, complete douche) called health care reform “the greatest threat to freedom he has ever seen.” There are plenty of reasons to criticize the health care reform bill, but that sort of hyperbole doesn’t serve any policy purpose. Since both sides of the aisle agree that some reform is needed, wouldn’t it be more productive to have a reasonable discussion of policy than to ignore the facts and say things that are clearly false?
So here is what I encourage us all to do: stop, listen and think.
- Stop: Before responding, take the time to hear somebody’s full argument. Don’t start preparing your response before they are done. Or before they have even started.
- Listen: Actually listen to the argument, so that you can understand what they are saying. Don’t assume that you can extrapolate from who they are to what they will say.
- Think: Truly think about what was said. What are the assumptions? Does the logic flow? Where do you agree or disagree?
If more people were to stop, listen and think, we could have far more effective discussions in this country. Of course, there is really a fourth step: respond honestly. In my example above, John Boehner doesn’t really think that health care reform is the greatest threat to freedom ever. He knows it’s not. He is just saying that because he’s been trained to talk in hyperbolic sound bites. And because he’s kind of an ass. But if we all – bloggers, protestors, commentators, politicians – can begin responding honestly after we stop, listen and think, then maybe we can all be trained to talk in terms of policies and positions instead of attacks and sound bites.