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Knee-Jerk Discourse

May 26, 2012

I’ve noticed something in recent political discourse.  It’s an interesting little study in human behavior, and it bears some examination.  It’s really, really annoying.

Say, for example, a person who leans one way or the other in the political spectrum (let’s say, for the sake of example, “left”) states or posts a fact or opinion that they have discovered about the “other side” (for this example, the “right”).  This is the most common pattern of response I’ve seen of recent.

Leftist:  Hey, that guy on the right did something demonstrably dishonest.

Rightest:  Oh yeah?  Well, there’s a guy on the left that did even more dishonest things!

Now, it is entirely possible for both of these people to be right.  Often, one or both sides are using hearsay evidence or manufactured information to make their point.  There’s a lot of that going around now, too, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

Guy One:  I like A, and there’s a problem with B.

Guy Two:  Well, I like B, and there’s a problem with A!

This happens regardless of the political views held by those engaging in the conversation.  Liberal, Conservative, Left, Right… doesn’t matter.  This is becoming increasingly common, and this isn’t a discourse.  It’s a knee-jerk  reflex.  No matter how much research and thought goes into the second statement, it isn’t a discussion of the first statement.  It doesn’t answer charges levied by the first statement, and in the end, there may be a good deal of conflict, but nothing has been resolved.  There are no answers, and without answers, there are no solutions.

We’re not in a good time in the history of our country.  We have a lot of problems to solve and issues to deal with.  Income inequality, campaign finance, the general function of the government on which we rely; these things are all extremely difficult issues.  There may be solutions out there, but people aren’t looking at solutions.  They’re looking for a fight.

Now, I understand that there’s a lot of benefit to a system of multiple political parties.  Having numerous points of view and different approaches to problems can allow for the reasoned and thoughtful solution to a great many problems; debate can lead to enlightenment.  That’s when it works right, and it isn’t working right at the moment.

Regardless of the problems of our government, the way that seemingly reasonable, intelligent people deal with what little information we can get our hands on is an excellent model of how to not solve a damn thing.

I’m going to go to a specific example.  It’s a bit left-centric, but so am I.  I apologize if there’s any offense.

In fairly recent news, the Romney campaign and many Republicans have claimed that the Obama Administration has presided over the greatest increase in government spending in the history of the nation. A number of internet “Fact Checking” sources have stepped forward to say that this appears not to be true.  In some cases, it appears that the opposite is true.

The Article In Question.

Link for those who believe Politifact is generally reliable.

This bears some discussion; this is a fairly major claim being made by the Republican front-runner for the presidency.  It measures his general level of honesty and financial/economic competence.  There are a lot of different means of analysis for the data presented; it’s not difficult to look into this and produce a sufficient quantity of material for serious debate.  Is it merely a “point of view” thing, where different systems of analysis generate  conclusions that are correct for their means of analysis and not for others, or is it a calculated falsehood?  Either is a possibility, but it doesn’t really matter.

In at least one case that I witnessed online, a response to a posting on the Article In Question, the immediate knee-jerk response was, essentially, “Oh yeah?  Well, Obama lies too!”  This link was included.

From there, it descended into an argument… a pointless barrage of mud-slinging that completely obfuscated the original point being made by the poster.  Any hope of the people involved having a reasoned discourse on the original article was gone; instead, it became purely a matter of “well, your guy is a dick too, so there” on BOTH sides, and everyone walking away with a firmer dedication to the fact that their side is being horribly victimized.


I was not a supporter of former president Bush, but I spent a good deal of time with people who were.  It was not, however, possible to have a reasoned discourse on the subject of errors that Bush might have been engaging in. Instead, for every difficulty with the former president’s choices or performance I voiced, the answer began with “Well, Clinton did this thing…”

Oddly enough, it’s the same people who answered every Bush statement with a Clinton accusation who are now the most vocal proponents of the “How long are we going to blame Bush for Obama’s mistakes?” crowd.

Here’s why this is so damn annoying.  When someone answers a statement or accusation about one side or the other with a generally unrelated accusation of the other side, they believe that what they are saying, in essence, is generally “we need to be completely fair in assigning blame and looking for problems, so looking at one side without looking at the other is going to be unproductive.”

What they are actually saying is “my side has been behaving like a group of drunken Marmosets doped up on Meth and Viagra and can’t stand up to any actual analysis of their actions, so HEY!  HEY!  LOOK OVER THERE!  MONKEY WITH A MOHAWK!”

There are a LOT of things that president Obama has done that I’m not happy with.  I’ll be happy to discuss that displeasure with someone who asks me about them.

I’m unhappy with the Democratic party.  If someone would like to discuss my specific unhappiness with that party, catch me at a con or something and buy me a coffee.  My opinions are cheap.

I’d like to discuss difficulties with the Republican party and their candidates as well.  I really try not to bring it up too much, though, because as soon as I do, someone is going to start a statement with “well, Obama…” and I’m going to have to slowly count to ten to avoid performing an act of violence.  I’ll be happy to discuss issues with the president, honestly.  First, though, is there a reasoned response to my difficulty with the Republican party and/or their candidates?  No?  Then just say so.

I would vastly prefer someone to say “I prefer not to discuss that,” or “I’m uncomfortable with that subject, can we please not have this conversation?”  Heck, a reasoned defense of the Republican party and/or their candidates would be awesome!  I’d like to actually engage in the kind of constructive discourse that can lead to a mutual understanding and perhaps point at solutions, whether there’s any hope of them actually being implemented or not.

The knee-jerk reaction of pointing at the other side and making a counter-accusation without dealing with the issue currently on the table is more than destructive to discourse.  It smacks of mindless jingoism, which not only undermines one’s position in a debate, it removes any concept of them as a person capable of rational debate.

Oh, sure, make a note to bring that point up.  It may be a good point.  But answer the original subject of conversation first, or as well.  That way, we can have two reasonable conversations that can end up being intellectually stimulating and forward-moving, as opposed to one conversation descending into name-calling and the confirmation of mutually negative opinions.

And if I, myself should happen to slip, and engage in knee-jerk discourse, well, feel free to… LOOK!  LOOK!  MONKEY WITH A MOHAWK!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Josef Melton permalink
    May 27, 2012 10:46 pm

    Unfortunately, I fear that some of this has come with an overly cynical public who has come to believe that this is a fair commentary because they have assumed the proposition “all politicians manipulate data and deceive and it’s to be expected” and then proceed to support that idea by demonstrating how the opposition has engaged in it.

    In so doing, however, they completely miss the actual initial topics brought up, namely “Is this true?”, “Should they do this?” and “Are we going to hold this candidate accountable for this?”

    Personally, I’m for holding all their feet to the fire, but sadly you and I seem to be in a minority right now. Plus, add in the sense of “fairness” that gets some people thinking Fox News is “Fair and Balanced” or that MSNBC calls things down the middle, and you have truly warped biases that completely screw everything up.

    And I have no idea how to fix that.

  2. June 8, 2012 6:45 pm

    and I will also add that even if you were to engage in rational discourse (well, you attempt it with the other side, any effort to point out facts) generally fails for two reasons: the “facts” both sides use are different. Some might say one side even resorts to blithely making something up, and then putting their fingers in their ears and standing in the middle of their metaphorical living room with their pants around their knees, screaming LALALALALALAA; and even should one concede one of the minor points that is peripheral to the discussion (at best), it is taken as a ringing endorsement of the whole position, and attempts to refute that are met with the “oh yeah, soandso did this” process.

    If it weren’t so important, it would be enough to make you cry, and then start drinking heavily.

  3. June 8, 2012 9:39 pm

    Morality and rightness is defined by our unreasoning selves. We use our reason to prove our underlying point. So trying to pay attention to reasoned argument actually takes training to get past our leaps of irrationality. Most people don’t have this training.

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