Reader Request Week 2020 #1: Being Politically Persuaded
It’s time for this year’s Reader Request Week! Let’s dive right in, and why not dive into the deep end? GB Miller asks:
I think over the years you’ve made your political beliefs quite crystal clear. Have you ever legitimately considered/agree with any viewpoint that came from the other side of the spectrum?
I’m gonna argue with some of the particulars of this question, because a) I don’t necessarily agree that I’ve made my political beliefs “crystal clear,” and b) I don’t agree with the formulation of politics as being on a linear spectrum. So let me address both of those before addressing the heart of the issue: Whether I consider political viewpoints that are different from mine.
First: Have I made my political beliefs crystal clear? I have certainly made my political opinions of the day clear — I have a three-decade track record of publicly talking about politics. But this is where I remind people that what I talk about publicly is not the entirety of my thinking, or of my action, and also, it’s important to note that people having positions on particular political topics does not in itself necessarily offer much insight into their political beliefs. Many liberals and many libertarians, for example, believe sex workers should be able to ply their trade openly and without social/economic/legal penalty, but the underlying beliefs that lead to that agreement are widely apart. And independent (heh) of political belief, there’s a fundamental difference between the position of “I should be able to work as a sex worker without penalty” and “I should be able to pay for sex work without penalty,” which leads two often very disparate cohorts to agree on the political topic of sex work.
If you know what I (or anyone) think on a political topic, what you know is what I (or anyone) think on that particular subject. Unless I delve deeply into the ethos and philosophy that led me to that point, however, you can’t say you know much of the underlying political belief. You can argue, with some justification, that there is a significant correlation between one’s thoughts on a set of political topics, and an underlying political ethos. But correlation is not causation, and one can be led astray.
Moreover, there’s a very large difference between how people see their own political beliefs, and how others often see them. I tend to think of myself as an inherently conservative person, motivated by an underlying philosophy of rationality and individual liberty, balanced by the practical issues of how to make a nation of 330 million as livable as possible for the largest number of its citizens. The Internet, on the other hand, often sees me a screaming socialist communist liberal who wants your guns and your freedoms.
Who is correct? Well, I live in my head, so I have a better idea of my own thinking. But I’m also human and prone to self-idealization. “The Internet” in this case is shorthand for people who superficially oppose my positions on political topics, and have the need to both gamify political discourse and simplify the world into “sides,” because binary systems are so much easier to deal with: Either you’re with us or against us. But again — hold a large enough set of personal political opinions, and the correlation with a “side” becomes stronger. So maybe these gamifiers and simplifiers aren’t entirely wrong.
Again, however, it’s not necessarily an either/or situation. It’s entirely possible that what I see as my personal inherent conservatism and belief in individual liberty within a system meant to benefit the largest number of people can lead me to espouse what are currently seen as (at the moment but not necessarily historically) intensely “liberal” positions. I am thinking of the cause of my political opinions; the Internet is seeing the effect of my political beliefs.
Second, and as a consequence of the first: Political sides are bullshit, and linear political spectrums are bullshit, and the fact that the political system in the United States has developed over the years to allow only two major parties at a time to control the discourse of politics is also bullshit, since it codifies “sides” to a vastly detrimental degree. We’re seeing the damage of that right now, as one of our major political parties has devolved into a tool of reactionaries who have almost no political philosophy other than cronyism, bigotry and a will to power. There is a philosophical reason I don’t belong to either major political party in the US, even if, as a practical matter, I find myself generally aligned to one of them and adamantly opposed to the current iteration of the other.
[Deleted: 3,000 word rant on this subject here, further expounding on the bullshit nature of “sides” and “political spectrums”]
There, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system —
— we can get to the question of whether or not I’ve ever considered or agreed with a viewpoint that comes from a different “side of the spectrum.” Specifically: No, because as noted, “sides” and “spectrums” are bullshit.
I think the more useful question here, and the one that I think gets to the point of what was asked in the first place: Have I ever considered or agreed with a viewpoint that is different than mine on any particular political topic? Yes, and primarily for two reasons:
1. I think it’s useful and necessary, as a politically acting and thinking individual, to understand the wider landscape of current political thought, specifically in the US (because I live here) and in the rest of the world to a lesser extent;
2. I think it’s useful to interrogate one’s own political positions and assumptions, and one of the better ways to do that is to find people who disagree with those positions and read what they have to say to see if it exposes flaws in one’s own thinking.
So, as it happens, I read and consider a fair amount of writing from people whose positions on political topics are different from mine. Do I ever find this writing persuasive? Sometimes! There have been times when I have been provided with a deeper historical or cultural understanding of a topic that has required me to incorporate that knowledge into my own thinking. Other times I learn that an understanding I had on a topic was based on an error, and I needed to re-examine my position based on that information. Sometimes with new information my position changed to a different position I felt was justifiable. And, of course, sometimes I went, “Oh, that’s interesting, but, yeah, I don’t find that reasoning compelling,” and kept my opinion.
Have I ever changed my mind entirely based on someone else’s viewpoint? Not generally based on a single piece of writing or argument, no; I would argue that my position on a topic would not be particularly strongly held if a single piece of writing could fundamentally alter my understanding on it. But a single piece can inform my thinking on a topic, and from there further reading/consideration can influence my thinking, alter it and over time change it significantly from where it was when I began thinking about the topic with any seriousness.
I don’t want to overstate my intellectual malleability, mind you. Because I have an underlying political ethos (as noted above), some aspects of my political thinking are more resistant to change than others, and it would take a lot of doing to move those. But there are topics for which I don’t have particularly strong opinions, or alternately new topics for which I don’t have a whole lot of information, where a single piece of argument, compellingly presented, can be significantly persuasive on my thinking and understanding.
Moreover, I don’t particularly find it difficult, or intellectually dissonant, to find common cause with people whose opinions on political topics I might otherwise generally disagree with. There are number of people in the US who consider themselves political conservatives who are (rightly, pun intended) appalled by the Trump administration and the GOP’s general willingness to abandon what are supposed to be its principles in order to dive head-first into the kakistocracy the current administration has wrought. Hey, we agree on this, and weirdly, for many if not most of the same reasons! Does this means we are now political BFFs forever? Nah. But on this topic I will take all the help I can get.
I will say that one of the things I do find tragic about the hazy electron shell of political positions that constitute the self-identified “right” in the United States today is that, while there is shitty political discourse all over the scatterplot of US politics, the shittiness of the discourse of the right is far closer to its mainstream than it is elsewhere — bad arguments abound and morally reprehensible positions are defended because, well, look who is in the White House, and authority must be defended, always.
Worse, much of this is by design — any organization that offers political opinion can offer up shitty hot takes on the topics of the day, but for places like Fox News and Breitbart and The Federalist (to offer three examples, each in logarithmically decreasing levels of respectability), being disinformative is the point — Sean Hannity and whatever poor desperate hacks the Federalist has sucking on its billionaire teat at the moment are not interested in sound argument. They want to muddy the rhetorical water and play as much “Debate: The Gathering” as possible because the destruction of clarity and logic in politics serves their purpose, or more accurately, the purpose of those paying them. Propaganda is not only the tool of the American “right,” as a quick glance through history (and the Internet) will show us. But the American right leads with it right now, because it must.
Needless to say, I do not find those “viewpoints” compelling. I find them disheartening, not only on the macro level of “what the fuck are you doing, Jefferson and Hamilton both would find common cause to kick your ass,” but also on the personal level of, when it turns out that one’s publicly stated political viewpoints are binned reductively on the “left,” it’s more difficult to find people on the self-identified “right” who can make a coherent argument on those viewpoints because “make a coherent argument” is not a priority in that sphere right now. That’s bad news for me, and much worse news for the country and planet.
What I’m saying is: I do consider viewpoints that are not my own. I wish right now that I was getting better arguments interrogating the viewpoints I currently have.
(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)