Writing on Issues in a Divided World

I want to write something for my students about this, or at least prepare something to say to my students about this, so I’ve decided I need to first write about it for myself to start sorting out my thoughts and ideas.

How do we write about issues in a world that is so terribly divided on every single point?

On Saturday, I heard that Justice Scalia was dead, and about five minutes later I heard that key Republicans had already announced that they would attempt to block any attempt President Obama might make to nominate a new Supreme Court justice. There was no waiting period before politics took over. There was no social contract that said we defer debate for a certain amount of time out of respect for the deceased and for his family. We went straight from the news of the loss to posturing about how we are going to use this to thwart each other politically.

This is not what I call normal. It is not what I call functional. Yet this is now our reality. This is what politics in 2016 looks like.

Back in my own day as a student writer, I was taught Rogerian argument in which the goal is not to shut down the other person but to open up dialogue so as to work toward consensus or compromise or workable solutions or at least a multi-sided understanding of the issues at stake. In this method, you don’t have to agree with the opposing side, but you do have to show that you respect and understand the other side.

Respect and attempts to understand seem to have left the building of American politics. What passes for political debate these days is so polarized that it seems risky to me to even attempt to discuss anything that really matters in the classroom. But if we don’t discuss things that matter, why are we even there?

The risk stems from the constant demonizing of the other. Label yourself as liberal, and half the country thinks you are evil. Label yourself as conservative, and the other half thinks you are evil.

It seems to me that a thinking person should make judgments issue by issue after careful analysis of the facts, not based on liberal vs. conservative catch phrases or a desperate attempt to avoid being associated with “the other side.”

So how do we get past this? How do we discuss issues in a meaningful way?

One thing that comes to mind is Jonathan Haidt’s work on liberal vs. conservative thinking.

I read his book The Righteous Mind, and I found it very thought-provoking. If we are going to have meaningful discussion, we have to first get beyond the idea that people who disagree with us are bad or stupid or uncaring or dishonorable. They are none of those things. They simply think differently. Some people think differently because they bring a different set of life experiences to the table, and others think differently because their brains are just wired to prioritize information in a different order.

We were all so divided over the Syrian refugee crisis, for example. In this case, we had two main motivating factors that determined where we stood on the issue of whether or not to allow Syrian refugees into the United States in the wake of the attack in Paris: (1) concern for harm being done to others; (2) concern for threats to ourselves and to those we love.

Both ways of seeing the problem are real. Both ways of seeing the problem are legitimate and based on real facts. Both are based on values.

Yet we were incapable of coming to consensus because some people’s brains are wired to prioritize around a core motivation of compassion, and some people’s brains are wired to prioritize around a core motivation of protection.

The end result of this in our current political climate is that a bunch of otherwise rational, kind, informed, and well-meaning people completely demonized one another over a very honest disagreement.

This realization doesn’t solve all of our problems, but it gives us a place to start having better discussions. If we want to talk about or write about issues, then, we have to start with a few guiding principles:

  • Don’t assume people on the other side are bad people.
  • Don’t assume people on the other side are lacking in intelligence.
  • Don’t assume people on the other side have an inferior understanding of the facts.
  • Don’t assume people on the other side are lacking in morality.
  • Don’t assume people on the other side want to see harm come to you.
  • Don’t assume that differences in opinions are dangerous to you.

It is okay for people to be different. It is okay for people to look at the same information and come to different conclusions.

Once we agree that disagreement is okay, we can understand the most universal truth of polarized arguments, which is that you aren’t ever going to win over people who don’t think the same way you think by telling them what you think.

Thus, we can add one more don’t.

  • Don’t assume you can beat a person on the other side of an issue into submission with the steady hammer blows of your facts. If everyone saw the facts the same way you see them, there wouldn’t be an argument.

Slide1I suppose then my own conclusions are that we don’t need lessons in argument so much as we need lessons in listening, lessons in respect, lessons in not jumping to conclusions about other people, lessons in considering other perspectives as valid.

Good luck on that, right?

Maybe we can’t all make friends and make nice. Maybe even basic respect for one another is just a pipe dream. If that’s the case, though, I’m reminded of something I learned from Ender’s Game–The only way to defeat the enemy is to know the enemy. The only way to know the enemy is to love the enemy.

In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them…. I destroy them.

Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

Yeah, that’s creepy. I think I might be giving up now.

Can’t we all just get along?


The young and the apathetic

Bristol Palin didn’t vote in yesterday’s election, according Us Magazine anyway. I’m sure that will earn her a few digs from comedians and maybe a lecture from her mother. I figure it’s her business. I’m not particularly interested in what Bristol should or should not have done. I mention this little sound byte here only to say that she is in the majority. Most people her age didn’t vote yesterday.

The interwebs are full of election postmortems today. I’ve been digging through some opinion pieces and exit poll analyses. Mostly, they are predictable. Some say health care was the primary issue. Some say the economy was the primary issue. Some say the Republican gains were direct indictments against Obama. Some say the turnovers were responses to watching a bickering, backstabbing, and ineffectual Congress in action.

I’ll leave you to parse out the party lines on these stances for yourself. It isn’t difficult.

Whatever the other reasons involved, we all know that elections are never about fundamental shifts in conservative or liberal values. Who Americans are and what they want and what they believe hasn’t changed much since two years ago when they put a Democrat in the Oval Office and a Democratic majority in Congress.

Circumstances may have changed. Some opinions may have changed. But America itself is not radically more conservative today than it was two years ago. In fact, on social issues, the country has actually crept slightly toward more liberal-mindedness in the past two years if the fact that acceptance of same sex partnerships crossed the 50% mark this year is any indication.

Americans are more worried about the economy now. That’s for sure. They may even be more divided on what they think the solutions to our economic woes are. They may most certainly be more at odds with Washington on how those solutions should be carried out.

But overall they are the same people they were two years ago and two years before that. Societal shifts happen. Value shifts happen. But they don’t happen in large and swift waves of change the likes of which it would take to carry an election.

Elections go to whichever side gets the most people out to vote.

This time that was clearly the Republicans. They were able to do it because they were more organized and more energized. Whatever the reasons behind the energy, the fact remains it was the energy that did it.

The fact also remains that no one energized the young voters this time. I’ll go out on a limb and assume that Bristol Palin, had she voted, would not have gone with a straight Democratic ticket. There are plenty of young Republicans around without a doubt. However, a higher youth turnout does usually mean more votes for Democrats. That didn’t happen.

No big surprise. Young people never show up to vote in large numbers unless someone deliberately sets out to get them all fired up. I guess someone forgot this time. Sometimes that happens. Something tells me, though, it won’t happen in 2012.

And that’s my random observation of the day. You can read some election turnout demographics and comparisons from 2008 to 2010 at the Washington Post.

The Politics of Civility

I thought Jon Stewart’s speech at the end of his Rally to Restore Sanity was the best political speech I’ve heard in years. That’s sad considering it wasn’t a political speech at all. It was the finale of a comedy show. Granted, it was a show with a purpose, but it was still a comedy show. If you hadn’t noticed before, that’s what Jon Stewart does.

The thing is he’s right. What we are missing in American politics is civility. As a result, we’re also missing rationality and reasoned discourse, and this lack of civility, this lack of rationality is largely fed by the cable news media.

When I say that, I’m not saying I think Fox News is bad. I’m not saying I think MSNBC is bad. I’m not saying I think CNN is bad.

I’m saying I think they are all horrific.

They aren’t reporting news. They aren’t even providing honest analysis. They are just providing social agitation. They are agenda-baiting, revving up the rhetoric for the sake of ratings.

I no longer watch any cable news on any sort of regular basis because I’ve been ready for a good while now to see America turn it down a notch.

I plan to vote tomorrow. I hope you do too. I hope all of our voices are heard.

The world will not end, however, if the people I vote for do not win. The country will not be destroyed if the people you vote for do not win. You win some. You lose some. You give a little. You take a little. That’s the nature of politics.

It’s been clear for some time now that the country is fairly evenly divided between those who identify themselves as liberals and those who identify themselves as conservatives. Victory goes to whoever happens to be angriest at the moment, whoever happens to be revved up enough to get more people out to vote and more swing voters swayed.

Either way, the next morning the country is still fairly evenly divided between liberals and conservatives. We’re still in a situation where the only way forward is through mutual give and take.

And those people, the ones on the other side, they aren’t the big bad wolf come to gobble up every value you hold dear. They are just your neighbors, your cousins, your in-laws, and the people in the office across the hall. They are just Americans voting their own consciences as you vote yours. They are just standing up for what they think is right as you stand up for what you think is right.

I’m with Jon on this one. I’m for toning down the hate talk on both sides. I’m for standing up against using words like stupid and evil to describe neighbors and co-workers who are simply exercising their rights as citizens of a free democracy to disagree.

Voltaire is often quoted as saying, “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” One of the more popular signs at Jon Stewart’s rally said, “I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you aren’t Hitler.”

Yeah, what they said.

Got Adventure?

I admit it. I’ve been in my own little world lately…like for the past 40 years or so but more than usual this week. I’ve been busy. I’ve been blocking out things I didn’t have to deal with so as to make more room in my life for coping with things I did have to deal with. It was just that kind of week.

So now that it is Friday, and I can breathe a little more freely, I’ve been catching up on the news. Of course, I’m not prepared to pay that much attention to the world around me. I skipped the depressing stories and went straight to important info. Did you know J.K. Rowling has been talking to Oprah? She made the shocking statement that she might write some more Harry Potter books. She also said, “Ha ha. Just kidding. Might not either. Just call me Just Kidding Rowling.” Well, anyway, that’s what she meant.

The other tidbit that caught my attention is that National Geographic named Hattiesburg an “Adventure Town.”

That’s interesting. After spending nearly 20 years of my life in Hattiesburg, I’m sure I would have named it as one of the top 100 adventure towns too. Sure I would have.

Remind me again, though….where’s the adventure?

Ha ha. Just kidding.


Way to go, Burg.

Oilmaggedon, Day 15

USA Today has an animated map that helps put the oil spill into perspective. I’ve been imagining this as a drifting blob. The map helps you see that it is spreading more than drifting. Usually, you want to calm your fears by “putting them into perspective.” I’m sorry this doesn’t do that. I’m sorry that’s not what I meant.

The USA Today map also shows the locations of the booms. I found that interesting. It helped me understand the comments made a few days ago by a Gulfport councilman that Mississippi and Gulfport in particular were being sacrificed as the booms helped steer the oil away from Louisiana wetlands. My first reaction to that was to feel defensive on behalf of my state. I even felt justified in this when I heard on the local news that there were no booms at Gulfport at a time when predictions had oil coming straight toward the Mississippi Coast within the next day or so.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. The weather, currents, and all of the other factors involved just aren’t as predictable as we like to think. But look at those booms on the map. They’re actually pretty scarce when looking at the ocean as a whole. They are set up around federal wildlife reserves and other highly sensitive areas. They aren’t nearly prevalent enough to actually guide the oil to any particular place, though. It’s going to go where it goes. The Coast Guard, no matter how hard at work, has very little influence.

Meanwhile, everyone is squawking about what’s what. Some say this is doomsday. Some say it’s not so bad. In truth, it is that bad. It is that big. But maybe we aren’t completely without hope of containing it.

On that note, I found two real significant pieces of information today. One, BP is going ahead with the long range plan of drilling a relief well to try to divert the flow from the one that is leaking. This could take up to 90 days to complete. That’s depressing. We can’t afford 90 more days of oil pumping into the Gulf at the current rate. I don’t even want to imagine. This is only one part of the plan, though. Let’s hope some of the more temporary measures work to bandage it up in the meantime, and let’s at least be grateful we do have a long range plan.

Next, they are trying to clean up some of the oil on the water by doing controlled burns. Maybe other people already knew about this, but I just heard about it today. Bad for the air, but good for the fish, except for the ones that get fried, of course. I don’t know whether controlled burns are good or bad, but at least they are trying something. It makes me feel better to know that they are attempting to reduce the amount of oil floating around out there.

I’ll try to remember it made me feel better when the black clouds start hovering over my house.

Random Thoughts

1. Despite the fact that tens of thousands of oil rigs have been operating in the Gulf without significant incident for decades, it only takes one catastrophic incident from one rig to kill a whole ocean.

2. No one, not even giant companies with giant budgets at stake, can be trusted to be prepared for the worst.

3. Nature has an astounding capacity to recover itself from catastrophes of nature. It has little hope against man-made catastrophes.

4. Dead sea animals are already washing up on the beaches at Waveland and Pass Christian. I know this because of pictures friends from coastal towns have posted on Facebook, not because it is being reported in the news.

5. Gene Taylor is downplaying the significance of the oil spill. Gene Taylor evidently has a political death wish.

6. The boons being used to protect the Louisiana wetlands from the oil spill are also being used to direct the oil toward the Mississippi beaches. I’m speechless on this. Thanks, Coast Guard. Mississippi is always happy to be the nation’s dump.

7. Too many people around here make their livings from the oil field for Mississippi to get behind shutting down the Gulf oil operations even if we do take the worst of the hit here. We do need to be a lot more concerned about getting out from under our oil dependency, though. We need to step up efforts toward conservation and toward moving to alternative fuel sources. We also need to step up efforts to bring in other industries to provide jobs.

8. Whatever happens this week along the coast will only be the start of a long term nightmare. We’ll only hold the attention of the national news until the first wave of high drama subsides.

9. The Sun Herald has put together a list of links to organizations and volunteer efforts for cleanup efforts. It seems to me that one of the best places for people from other places to support financially is The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport. They’ll be training people to help with cleanup in addition to trying to save animals.

10. I don’t eat seafood, but if I did, I’d be eating whatever I could get this week.

Not Necessarily the News

As I now have the opportunity to come out of my grading coma a little, I’ve attempted to catch up a little on what’s going on the world today. Mistake, mistake, mistake. At least, the way I went about it was a mistake. I tried to watch some news on TV. Why do I continue to expect the news to inform me in some way, only to be disappointed time and time again?

I don’t care much for infotainment, weak on info. That’s my complaint of the day. Otherwise I’ve been resting up from the past few weeks of job-related stress. It’s been a blustery day. I think that’s an appropriate word for rain with steady Gulf winds high enough to knock some patio chairs around but not high enough to do any real damage.

It’s been blustery, and the news has been watery and disappointing despite that fact that I did mange to find out that Gene Taylor took a plane ride over the Gulf and thinks it looks like chocolate milk. I think that was supposed to comfort us somehow.

The cats and I, though, are just hanging out, taking a day off from making any particular effort whatsoever. Not much to report here.

Though as a little bonus, I will leave you with this clip from Winnie the Pooh’s “Blustery Day.” It’s more entertaining than the news.

Beware the Aliens

And I don’t mean Mexicans in Arizona or in Mississippi either. I mean them. Out there in the universe somewhere. We need to be afraid of them, says Stephen Hawking. Great. I could handle this if Tom Cruise had said it, but this is Stephen Hawking, certified smart man.

I decided there wasn’t much I could do or say about a giant blob of oil that we all sit around waiting for like a bad 70s movie: Attack of the Crude Oil Blob. To distract myself I pulled up Google News and clicked to a random article about anything other than oil and decimated eco-systems and industries. I got Stephen Hawking saying the Oil Blob is nothing compared to what the aliens will do to us when they finally show up.

There’s my mood lifter.

People keep comparing the oil spill to Katrina. I don’t even know what that means. I think this will not hit us with a bang like a hurricane. It will be more insidious, with perhaps longer-ranging results. In truth, I don’t know what it will be like, but it will not be like a hurricane.

If it were a hurricane, even a large one, we would know what to do to prepare.

I stood in Wal-Mart this evening thinking, “What do you buy the night before an Oil Blob attacks?” A guy walked past me saying to his friend, “I’m gonna get me a big screen TV.”

Why not? All the better to see our dead marine life, I suppose.

And what a useless feeling it is to know we can do nothing to save that marine life. I’m sickened by the whole thing. Horrified. It’s too much to think about. If I could bring a dolphin home to keep it safe, I would, but my bathtub isn’t very big.

So sad, and as if not sad enough, now the aliens are coming, and it’s every carbon life form for herself. Good luck, world.

Meanwhile in the Gulf

The oil spill in the Gulf sounds downright frightening and horrifying. I don’t even know what to say about it, and if I take the time to figure out what to say about it, I probably won’t manage to finish my grades tonight as I am fairly well committed to do.

The past couple of weeks have been surreal. I’ve been yammering away on the blog about my own stress levels over work while the world is basically falling apart around me as I do my best to block it out so that I can keep worrying about work and deadlines.

During a time of normal work loads, I’m sure I would have had plenty to say about the explosion in the Gulf that killed 11 people and caused the current environmental disaster. When I hear there’s been a horrific tragedy in, for example, a coal mine in West Virginia, I feel sad. I feel sympathy and concern. I feel awful for the people involved. When I hear there’s been a tragic explosion on an oil rig in the Gulf, I feel fear. I don’t just feel sad concern. I feel shattered.

I’ve never known a single person who worked in a coal mine, but I could spend the rest of the day naming people I know who’ve worked on an oil rig in the Gulf. I know people who are working there now. An explosion like that could have killed anyone’s brother, husband, dad, cousin, or boyfriend. Anyone at all that I know. It could have killed my own nephew. When I heard about it, I was afraid. I’m afraid still.

I’m certainly afraid of what’s going to happen because of that big blob of oil floating around out there, what the longer term consequences will be.

But I can’t blog about that right now, just as I haven’t been able to blog about it so far. I have to grade.