This is in response to Jonathan Pie’s rant about the election.
There is a lot of truth to his argument. But I have reached across the aisle every opportunity, and I think his argument ignores a deeper problem. You can’t have a reasonable conversation with people who aren’t reasonable. That’s not an insult; that’s a simple statement of fact.
Reasonable people care about the truth. Reasonable people use facts to inform their position and understand how to fact-check. Reasonable people are prepared to evaluate more than one side of an argument and are ready to change their mind. Reasonable people, in short, use reason.
In almost every conversation I’ve had with Republicans in general, and with Trump supporters in particular, I have discovered a nearly universal disinterest in all of that. You cannot have a productive conversation with someone who believes lies, is selective about facts, is close-minded and will not change their position. In short, you can’t have a logical discussion with unreasonable people.
I have not yet found a reasonable Trump supporter. I’m sure they’re out there. But that’s not what carried this election. Hillary was perceived as uninspiring because so many people did not trust her; that mistrust was based on lies. I looked at the facts, I actually looked carefully at all the accusations, and almost all of them were baseless. The ones that had some basis were considerably overblown.
The Republicans are led by a group of skilled poisoners: they are brilliantly skilled at destroying the reputation of their opponents. So Jonathan Pie not wrong; it is true that the left needs to find an antidote. He’s right that pointing out when someone is being unreasonable doesn’t tend to convince them to listen. They just dismiss it as an insult. People used to care about intelligence, about leadership, about accomplishment. But in today’s society, acknowledging that someone hasn’t done their homework is no longer acceptable behavior. It doesn’t make them listen, it makes them defensive.
So he’s also completely wrong. As for me, I have not “decided that any other opinion, any other way of looking at the world is unnacceptable.” Quite the opposite. But I am not going to give credible, careful consideration to an opinion that is clearly misinformed and wrong. Climate change is real. Obamacare did not hurt our economy. Raising the minimum wage has not destroyed Seattle’s economy. Outlawing abortions will result in a lot of harm. The economy performs better under Democratic presidents than Republican ones (by a lot). These aren’t casual opinions; these are informed positions, based on personal research and data. Show me data to challenge any of them and I’ll listen. Repeating “no, I disagree,” over and over, doesn’t qualify. Repeating any opinion without data, doesn’t qualify.
Here’s a concrete example: Hillary Clinton is “objectively terrible,” Mr. Walsh claims. The word “objective” means “not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased.” Read this piece, and see how unbiased it is. See how many facts it contains. How do we constructively enagage with a statement like “you nominated a corrupt, deceitful, detestable crook?” How do we constructively engage when what follows does not defend that thesis, but just accepts it as true? How do we constructively engage when any objection to that thesis is met with “You [can’t] see it because your tribal mentality tells you that any criticism of your leaders must be the result of bigotry towards whatever demographic they belong to.” No; you’re wrong. I can’t see it because there is nothing to support it. Show me the evidence, or shut the hell up! But how can I get someone to think about that if they dismiss everything I say out of hand?
How do we constructively engage when the results are used to justify the position? “She’s awful and she deserved to lose. And so she did lose.” Or, in other words, “My tribe is bigger than yours, so our groupthink has been proved correct.” The crisis is not about lack of conversation it’s that everyone, on both sides, are so convinced of the inherent truth of their positions that they project their own close-mindedness on those who disagree with them, and then ignore and insult them.
There’s another problem. Facts are boring. They are complicated. They sometimes conflict. They don’t easily boil down to pithy, ringing campaign slogans. To have a conversation, we also have to acknowledge that things aren’t simple, nor easy. With that in mind, compare both Jonathan Pie’s passionate but simplistic prescription to Elizabeth Warren’s. Did you have the patience to actually read hers? No? Then I’m afraid you are part of the problem, Jonathan Pie’s accusations notwithstanding.
So… no. Sorry, but it’s not accurate that “all you have to do is engage in the debate. Talk to people who think differently than you do. And persuade them of your argument.” That’s what I do, that’s what I try to do. But if the people you’re talking to are completely uninterested and largely incapable of listening to dissent, if they have their own echo chamber reinforcing their ignorance, if they reject any suggestion that conflicts with their unyielding preconceptions, then that approach cannot succeed.
I don’t have an answer. But I will say this. Mr. Pie’s conclusion is completely wrong: “It’s so easy, and the left have lost the art.” It’s not easy. I’m not sure any of us on either side have ever had the art.
My experience has been that the problem is that so many of us have lost the ability to listen, and to do the hard work of thinking critically. That’s not a problem on the left. That’s a problem across the board.
There is no conversational antidote to arrogant mediocrity.