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Zero Tolerance for Complex Issues

Posted by Rick · April 10th, 2004 · No Comments

Blame this post on an Evil Rooster.

This post will, unfortunately, be long. Those of you who take the time to read it, though, will understand why. It’s my attempt to explain why I think political discourse in America has become so nearly hopeless and usually acrimonious. I personally think it’s also why, unless something dramatic changes about the way we do political discourse, it’s part of the reason our Republic is nearing the end of its life.

A recent conversation with a periodic blogger on the other side of the Atlantic about the incivility of modern political discourse has been percolating in the back of my mind. Just a little while ago, it collided with a thought that popped up while reading a paragraph from Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity about a judge’s ruling in the Napster case. Lessig is pointing out that the RIAA attack upon file-sharing essentially throws out the baby with the bathwater. After Napster told the District Court in its trial that “it had developed a technology to block the transfer of 99.4 percent of identified infringing material,” the judge said this wasn’t good enough; the target was “zero.” Lessig notes,

If 99.4 percent is not good enough, then this is a war on file-sharing technologies, not a war on copyright infringement. There is no way to assure that a p2p system is used 100 percent of the time in compliance with the law, any more than there is a way to assure that 100 percent of the VCRs or 100 percent of Xerox machines or 100 percent of handguns are used in complaince with the law….The court’s ruling means that we as a society must lose the benefits of p2p, even for the totally legal and beneficial uses they serve, simply to assure that there are zero copyright infringments caused by p2p. — Lessig, Free Culture (2004) The Penguin Press, at p. 74.

As Lessig states, “Zero tolerance has not been our history.”

“Zero tolerance” is cropping up just about everywhere today. We have “zero tolerance” in our schools, so that we expel children who bring Advil to school for their menstrual cramps. We have “zero tolerance” laws on the books now and our Attorney General pushes that policy even farther by going after judges who judge, rather than simply handing out the harshest possible sentence. Politicians are run out of office for single off-the-cuff comments. (Unless they are popular Presidents, in which case they can call people “p*ssy” or “*ssh*le” with impunity.) Corporations have “zero tolerance” for city councils that refuse to allow them to put up Supercenters which city planners have determined will create massive problems for sewage systems and traffic patterns — and they are undeterred when entire populations of voters, such as those in the City of Inglewood, vote against their proposals to go over the heads of those city councils. (Wal-Mart notes that what happened in Inglewood will not stop them in other areas of the country.)

It’s no surprise, then, that this “zero tolerance” attitude is a chief component of political discourse today. Talking heads on television entertain us with their shout-fests. Instead of allowing “an opponent” to complete — sometimes even to start — a sentence, they try to talk right over the top of them. When the other side responds in kind, neither side is heard. But none seem concerned that by not allowing their opponents to make a point, their own point becomes equally difficult to make. And the “news” stations don’t mind. Like so many chimpanzees (or Jerry Springer fans), they know that “excitement” will draws viewers. Who wants to watch informed participants make solid arguments in a dreary debate? I mean, seriously, how many people really watch C-SPAN?

It’s also easier for the participants. Destruction is nearly always easier than building. Force and coercion are nearly always easier than convincing. Besides that, it’s often more entertaining.

I was on the road for about six hours last night. During that drive, I took a break from the scintillation of Sum & Substance’s CDs on Property Law to switch on the radio. The-guy-who-isn’t-really-a-liberal-but-plays-one-on-TV — you know, the one who doesn’t look like Hannity, but sits near him politically and on television; Fox’s version of a liberal, which is to say, only slightly right-of-center — was questioning the Libertarian candidate for President.

I don’t recall the entire five minutes or so of conversation to which I listened, but it went something like this:

Pseudo-Hannity: “So if you abolished the income tax, as Libertarians want to do, how would you pay for all the services that people need and want, like police, courts, a standing army?”

Libertarian: “There is enough money raised from excise taxes —”

Pseudo-Hannity cuts him off to say, “Where would you get the money?”

Libertarian: “There is — ”

Pseudo-Hannity: “The money! Where would you get the money?”

This exchange went on like that for about five minutes, during which time I learned from the Libertarian that there are excise taxes which bring the government huge sums of money and that the Constitution allows Congress to apportion taxes to the states. I was also eventually able to piece together — amidst Pseudo-Hannity’s interruptions — that he believed the federal income tax was more harmful to the poor and middle class and I think he was trying to point out that the other avenues for taxation would be more fair to all segments of society and supply our realistic needs.

Now I have never voted Libertarian; I doubt I’m ever going to do so. I can’t even remember the name of the Libertarian candidate for President, which is why I didn’t use it above. And I think the conversation between Pseudo-Hannity and the Libertarian could have been interesting even if he’d been allowed to talk. The problem is, I think, that every time he talked, the attention was on him and what he was saying. Pseudo-Hannity became invisible; on radio, not to be heard is not to be seen. Additionally, who really tunes in to listen to Pseudo-Hannity because they want to learn something? He’s part of Hannity & Colmes (oy! that’s his real name! he must be Colmes!), which is part of Fox “News,” a.k.a. the entertainment people. And if Pseudo-Hannity doesn’t entertain he’s not going to be on the radio very long. (This is why true liberal radio hosts have such a difficult time.) If he doesn’t show that he’s ultimately superior to his guest, then station owners might start to wonder, “Why do we pay big bucks for this guy? We could use anyone who knows how to talk!”

Why they haven’t figured that out already isn’t really that difficult to understand, though. Pseudo-Hannity has a quick wit and an even quicker tongue. He can interrupt a substantive comment with a quip faster than just about anyone — except maybe the real Hannity.

Ultimately, though, entertainment can’t take the whole rap. After all, one thing that makes it entertaining is that it doesn’t require a lot of thought — for either the recipient of the entertainment or for anyone who might otherwise be required to build substantive arguments against something they can just shout down or silence. Building substantive arguments is hard. I know. Every once in awhile, I get the itch to try it.

Seriously — and for the moment, I’m going to speak for myself and from my own experience, rather than what I’ve read, what someone else has told me, or what I think I’ve surmised (correctly or incorrectly) is generally thought — building substantive arguments is hard. And it’s getting harder.

To build a substantive argument, first of all, means understanding what’s happening, understanding what one thinks about what’s happening and then finding a way to explain it in a fashion that will at least get another’s attention, even if it doesn’t ultimately convince. In my experience, understanding what’s happening isn’t always that easy. You see something, or hear something, and you think you get it. But did you? More than once I’ve had the experience of thinking I understood something, only to find later that I didn’t. I believe Dale Carnegie once noted that at any given point in time each of us is wrong about 55% of what we believe. (Going off memory and paraphrasing here) He quoted Franklin Roosevelt as saying that if he could be right about 75% of the time, he’d consider himself a massive success.

Then, of course, even if I understand what has happened, I don’t always know what I think about what’s happened. To this day, I’m kind of like that with abortion. I don’t like abortion. I think abortion is wrong. But I’ll wager that anyone who knows me or has read things I’ve written touching on that topic — perhaps even including my wife — is stunned to hear me say that. Why? Because I don’t always know what I think about the best way to prevent abortions, but regulation of it clashes with other strongly held ideals that I have. So I usually argue against government regulation of it. Then the religious wingnuts of our country start to loosen (read that how you will) and we have a law against so-called partial-birth abortions. And what do I think about that, someone asks? To speak frankly, I don’t know what I think about that. (To balance things in the other direction a little, I think it’s wrong for families to have more than two children — and I especially think that of families that cannot support their children. But what do I think about cutting off welfare for families with 10 children? I don’t know. I tend to think sterilization is the best choice, but what do I think about forced sterilization, in lieu of what the Chinese do [e.g., forced abortions], since the majority will not willingly be sterilized? I just don’t know. And before anyone jumps me, I didn’t use the word “breeders” and I’m not in favor of the nutso “child-free” movement, nor am I against people having children. I just think common sense tells me a harmful virus can only spawn so many copies before the host — in this case, Earth — dies. On the other hand, I don’t have children. So when I’m gone, I [literally] won’t care anymore. It’s your children’s planet you’re not protecting, not mine. Have at it.)

By far, the hardest part for me, though, is not with understanding what’s happening or even with knowing what I think about it. It’s with the last thing in this trilogy I mentioned: Explaining in a way that will at least get another’s attention, even if it doesn’t convince. Entertainment and a debate over serious issues like freedom of speech, freedom of association, abortion, war, social welfare programs, social security and Homeland Security don’t always go hand-in-hand. It’s difficult to be interesting and pithy — or at least not long-winded! — all the time.

And that brings me to the last reason why I think political discourse has tanked. Fox, politicians — especially presidential candidates of all stripes and perhaps even more especially Republicans — have figured out that it’s not just that people want to be entertained, they also don’t want to take the time for prolonged debate. (Let’s face it: How many people have even read this far into my post? Just post a comment saying “I was here” if you did. I’ll bet this post gets less comments than just about any other I’ve done recently — it’s too doggone long!)

It takes time to understand another’s point of view. It takes time to understand one’s own point of view. And the growth of population, of technology and the ability to interlink us all has been both a blessing and a curse, because now there are more people with more points of view and skillful use of the media for communications is more complicated. Even a blog is more complicated than a pencil and paper, a typewriter, or a real-life conversation (especially if you maintain the servers yourself!).

So when you want to make a difference, when you want to run things, even if it’s because you are altruistic or you believe you really can do a better job, sometimes the best way to get what you want is to just shout the other guy down and make sure you’re saying enough of what the masses of voters want to hear — just in case enough of them are actually listening.

And after a long enough time in front of the television, with these as our examples, this is how America learns to conduct political discourse.

Categories: Social Issues


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