When I was in early college I had to take a Defensive Driving course. At the beginning of the course, they had a little video where then-President Bill Clinton expressed the importance of driving safely. There was a woman in the audience that spent the entire three minutes of the movie groaning. Nothing was more important to her, apparently, than registering her disgust with the president while he was talking about something about as uncontroversial as you can get. The rest of us, on the other hand, were there because we wanted lower auto insurance rates. Politics wasn’t supposed to figure in.

—-

Free speech is one of the hallmarks of democracy. Further, it’s important that issues are discussed and candidates are adequately appraised. Even uncomfortable issues need to be discussed if for no other reason to know why people think the way they do. Also important is to clear up misperceptions about candidates, reveal their flaws and extol their virtues so that we as a people make the better decisions come election times. While I would say that the tones and rhetoric often used to discuss politics is counterproductive, it’s nonetheless important to have the conversations in the first place.

But there is a time and place for these conversations and a time and place to avoid them. For instance, I have various friends that I refuse to discuss politics because there is nothing to be gained by it. Some people that I agree with 75% of the time I can’t discuss anything with and some that I have 25% in common I can. I don’t want politics on sports news networks. Unless it’s an intrinsically political act, I don’t want it at music shows either. Even if I agree with what the dude is saying, I cringe for the guy in the audience that went there to hear a song and instead heard that the singer thinks that he voted for an idiot. I almost never discuss politics in the workplace. You get the idea.

—-

Once upon a time, I used to be a political blogger. I enjoyed it a great deal for a while, though as time passed I began to enjoy it less and less. Early on there were a lot of discussions about policies and even politicians and you could find reasonable people of every political stripe to talk to and even find common ground with or at least a better understanding where, precisely, you see things differently. Over time, though, those friends became opponents because we stopped trying to find common ground or a sense of understanding. Then they became enemies as we stopped believing that the other person was acting with honesty and good faith. By the time I closed shop, there wasn’t a single issue that I didn’t already know who was going to object to my view, what incendiary figures they would bring up to discredit my view, what anecdotes that proved their case they would find, and what sorts of selective facts they would use from selective Internet surfing between sites that were more sympathetic to their point of view.

Because of this experience, I decided that I did not want Hit Coffee to be a political blog even though I am just as opinionated as I’ve always been and just as interested in politics and policy. This creates a bit of a problem for me because I am constantly thinking about politics, tracking the latest polls, considering the latest policy proposals, and weighing the stances on all sorts of issues. But for the most part I bite my tongue. When I do write about politics I try to maintain as neutral a tone as possible and represent both sides even if clearly coming out on one side or the other. I avoid contentious debates over which there is no compromise and nobody’s mind is going to be changed. I also avoid issues like race where things have the ability to turn very nasty very quickly. I try to avoid talking about the candidates directly either to endorse them or to denounce them.

The main reason I do this is because I want people to be comfortable coming here whether they are Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, or Independents. Or if they don’t care about politics at all. Politically contentious issues have the ability to suck the air of a room, so to speak. So politics would be a distraction towards the life issues and personal posts that I want to focus on. I don’t want to come home and think to myself “I wonder what political point I’m going to have to refute today…” as I did years ago and I don’t want a post about my immigrant neighbors to get hijacked into a conversation about immigration with broad stereotypes, selective statistics, accusations or racism, and so on.

Yesterday I wrote a post quoting Barack Obama about how he professes to have come by his faith and how he was initially suspicious of it. Maybe his entire account was a fictional creation to explain away an opportunistic conversion. Maybe it was the honest truth. I don’t really know and you don’t, either. Yet I think that there is a part of us that will always want to pin down the specifics in order to demonstrate that Obama is an honorable or dishonorable man, depending on what our politics are compared to his. I quoted the passage, though, as a thought about faith. Even if it was purely fictitious, it spoke to me and so I shared it as well as how it resonated with me. It took less than three comments before it was a referendum on Obama.

I have in the past put up pre-emptive notices on where I don’t want the comment thread of a post to go. People seem disinclined to say anything when I do so I think because nobody wants what they say to be misinterpreted as the aspect of the post that I don’t want to talk about. So I tried going without on the Salvation post and that really didn’t work. I don’t want to dictate the parameters of the comment section of every post that could fall prey to a political axe that someone wants to grind. So I’m not entirely sure what to do.

But for now I’m going to ask this: Hit Coffee is a venue to relax, think, and be entertained. If your comment will not help people (including me) do one of these three things and it has the potential to make people angry, reconsider posting it or at least how you post it. Calling somebody names or accusing their preferred candidate, party, religion, or whatever of being fraudulent, asinine, or stupid is not going to make someone reconsider their position. Implying that nobody intelligent or moral could take a position other than your own… well, same deal.

But in addition to wanting discussion to be thoughtful, I also would like discussion. If nobody commented on this blog I would have stopped writing it a long time ago. I consider most of you to be friends that I’ve never met (or that I have met, in some cases). So please don’t take any of this to mean that I don’t appreciate all of your contributions to this site which in many cases outmatch my own. More than anything I actually want to avoid the kinds of subjects that suck the air out of the room and prevent us from having the kinds of conversations that we ordinarily do.


About the Author


23 Responses to A Friendly Discussion

  1. Linus says:

    As someone with political views quite different from yours but who likes to understand both sides of an issue, I really appreciate this post. You’re right, commenting is important, but so is maintaining an atmosphere where people can debate without getting personal.

  2. Barry says:

    Yeah, we should get back to discussing the really important and non-contentious issues, like what age girls should get married, and how much older their husbands should be. That’s a nice, safe topic 🙂

  3. trumwill says:

    Oddly enough, Barry, it sometimes seems that any topic is safe so long as it does not involve Republicans and Democrats… 🙂

    Linus, I would actually prefer not think of it as a “debate” at all since the purposes of debates are to win or at least win people over. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to win people over to my POV on every issue there is… but one of the reasons that I’ve generally enjoyed the discussions on HC and Bobvis more than I did on my previous political blogs is that I have less frequently fallen back into the mindset of needing to win an argument and have been able to focus more (in my mind, anyway) on what precise assumptions and estimations inform differing opinions and maybe at least getting across some of my points or at least get them to acknowledge that some of my differing assumptions are not completely without validity. Then of course someone will just piss me off and I’ll have to give them a piece of my mind. Hey, I never claimed to be perfect! 🙂

  4. Peter says:

    At least the election’s not far off, which should lessen the amount and volume of political discourse.

  5. Gannon says:

    {This comment was redacted at the request of Trumwill. Gannon was either making a subtle joke by pretending to miss the entire point of the post or he missed the entire point of the post. Just in case anyone anyone else missed the point, this is a post about not using any and every post and/or comment to try to grind a political axe – however worthy you believe your cause to be and however disgraceful you consider the other cause and its proponents to be. This is not a post about Age of Consent laws nor were Barry’s comments an invitation to make it about such.}

  6. bobvis says:

    Trumwill, I agree politics can do all these things. It’s almost always emotional in some form.

    Is it less though than, say, dating?

  7. Peter says:

    what’s Obama’s position on AOC?

    Trust me, any politician anywhere in the United States who proposed lowering the AOC to 14 would effectively destroy his political career in an instant.

  8. Kirk says:

    I think a lot of bloggers go political simply to get traffic. Same thing with talk-radio.

    I’ve grown somewhat apolitical; I suppose this is because I generally expect less from government than I used to.

    And for what it’s worth, “Expect Less” is my new motto. I’m thinking of getting it put on a bumper sticker.

  9. trumwill says:

    Bob, the difference between politics and dating is that at the end of the day we have to get along with the other side because we want to date them, sleep with them, and have children with them. Plus, the most ardent feminist usually has a father and husband and often brothers or sons and the staunchest paleocon has a mother, wife, and often sisters and children. A lot of people don’t frequently interact with people of vastly different political stripes.

    Kirk, I totally want that bumper sticker!

  10. Bobvis says:

    I see. Dating is something that *requires* resolution while politics does not (because we can just avoid people who have differing views). Am I getting that right?

  11. Brandon Berg says:

    Kirk:
    I wish. When it comes to government, less is more.

  12. Webmaster says:

    Bobvis,

    I will state with certainty that the left wing VERY much exists (and tends to create) an echo chamber surrounding their views.

    My foremost evidence would be my workplace. You can find very few places in the USA that are LESS open to political discourse from anything other than the left-wing line than a university.

  13. trumwill says:

    I think that it’s a general truth that people can and do seek out the views of like-minded people. Go to Free Republic or Daily Kos and it’s pretty straightforwardly there.

    There’s actually nothing wrong with this to an extent. Sometimes to explore ideas you need to be with someone that shares some common assumptions or else every discussion begins back at square one. For instance, if two liberals are trying to discuss whether the best nationalized health care plan is a single-payer or one that involves mandatory coverage and private organizations, a loud libertarian can pretty much destroy the conversation because they’d then have to spend their time explaining why national health care was necessary to begin with. Likewise, two Christians trying to debate some specific Biblical passage can be completely undermined by a loud atheist who demands that they explain how exactly it is that God exists in the first place.

    Of course, some people take it too far and spend so much time talking to likeminded people that they forget that other people exist. They assume that people who hold the opposing ideas are like those opposing politicans on TV who are obviously corrupt and crazy as evidenced by the millions of dollars worth of negative ads they’ve had hurled at them. And because you don’t have to deal with these people on a daily basis – or even if you do you can chalk them up to the exception in a “You’re a credit to your people” kind of way – you are absolutely free to disregard them all as stupid, greedy, and nuts.

  14. Bobvis says:

    Web, just FYI, I actually do work for a university now! I’m forced to be a union member, no less. I’m in the business school though, so it doesn’t really count. We’re mostly apolitical money-grubbers here.

    Do you think the right is more likely to explore the best-available arguments of the left than vice versa? I doubt this is true, though I don’t know how to go about measuring it. It seems to me that the vast majority on each side only looks to the other for their worst-available arguments to use as pinatas.

    I think it would interesting to try to measure this.

  15. Willard Lake says:

    In my view, there appear to be two basic schools of thought: Black and White (B&W), and Nuance. With the B&W approach, those things that are not what you think are right are, in fact, wrong, and should be removed from the equation as quickly as possible. With the Nuance view, there are many different solutions to a particular issue, and the main problem is identifying the “best” one in the “quickest” amount of time. Some have summed these views up a little differently in the “Acting without Thinking” and “Thinking without Acting” camps. Neither political party is solely B&W or Nuance, but I think more Nuance exists in the Democratic camp than in the GOP, and more B&W exists in the GOP than with the Democrats. There are many reasons for this, and they are probably best left for another comment, but, as for myself, I like to view the world more in shades of grey than in stark terms as “You are either with us, or against us.” Of the two candidates, one more closely fits my view, so that’s for whom I will cast my vote; though, I know it will be meaningless, as Deseret hasn’t deviated from its electoral college preferences since before my father was born.

  16. Webmaster says:

    Willard,

    I’m going to differ with you slightly.

    The B&W view comes into play when you question the entrenched assumptions of the conversation. The “Nuance” view comes into play when you’re all agreeing on basic assumptions and going from there.

    As the left wing is entrenched in media and academia and tries their best to control the discussion, from my perspective their basic assumptions need to be questioned.

    Unfortunately, the vast majority of the left wing (especially the crazy DailyKos crowd that runs the democrat party these days) has the gut reaction to scream bloody murder (or “racism”, “sexism”, “intolerance”, etc) when their basic assumptions are questioned. Once they’ve done that, these various bogus complaints tend to Godwin the discussion and leave it impossible to make any progress.

  17. Bobvis says:

    Web, that’s an intriguing idea. Do you have an example of an issue this applies to? (of when someone is accused of having a B&W view when they are in fact only questioning an entrenched assumption)

    Just to pitch out my own theory, I think oftentimes people on the right don’t adopt the nuance approach despite their abilities to use one. There views often are that many issues do boil down to B&W. They don’t believe “the more nuance the better.”

  18. Webmaster says:

    Bobvis,

    issues where this applies:
    – Economic issues (liberals start from the point of “what extent shall social program X go to” or “how do we redistribute income”, conservatives will ask the root question of why we need social programs and, more to the point, why government needs to be the source of Program X).

    – Racial issues. Questioning whether improvements made in racial equality ought to mean that “reparation” programs should be scaled back violates the liberal taboo on discussing “affirmative action” programs, particularly when questioning the (false) assumption that no progress has ever been made. Related: large amounts of media that spend time seeking to convince minorities that progress has not been made, or to stir up feelings of hatred/resentment.

    – Genetics. I believe you yourself commented on the “taboo” of researching into genetic causes of things like sexuality, intelligence, or personality traits. The underlying assumption that these “can’t” be the case (for fear it would “mean” that they were, or that “bad people” would use the results to justify bad actions, or a GATTACA scenario) harms science just the same.

    And I’m sorry, but there is a line between “nuance” and “bullshit” that I find oftentimes the left tends to ignore. The idea that you can keep trying to rephrase the same old bad idea and eventually find a way to word it into tricking someone into adoptiong it doesn’t help honest discourse.

    “The more nuance the better” is a false premise for a debate – it makes the (false) assumption that by pushing an extreme case, one can generalize back and somehow come up with a good answer for an entire discussion.

    For example: the left often makes the case (I have actually seen this made almost verbatim on campus) that because “a 14 year old girl raped by her father” should not be “forced” to carry the baby to term, that society should have open and free access to no-question abortions at all times.

    The “nuance” is the whole set of “exceptions” played out in the statement. The CORE discussion is (a) whether society should allow abortions and (b) under what circumstances, but that’s not the point the left wants to discuss.

    If there were actual nuance to the debate – such as “here are the possible factors (or combination thereof) that would make an abortion acceptable”, that’d be one thing. Most of the left, however, spends their time walking into the discussion claiming that 90% of their agenda is already decided on, and wanting to “discuss” only the last 10% (that “nuance” you refer to) and scream godwin-set insults when you try to go back to the true core of the debate.

  19. trumwill says:

    I suppose I can take solace that it took four days and fifteen comments to get right back to the point that people that disagree with us are so frequently detestable…

    I can agree with Web that the left’s views are frequently a lot more B&W than they realize. At the same time I think that a lot of it depends on how the issues are approached. Approaching an issue thinking that the other side is “bullshit”, for instance, is likely to lead you to say things or simply display mannerisms that tell the other person “This person is not reasonable”.

    Likewise, the most out-spoken people on the right and on the left are often the least reasonable. I think that part of the trick is to learn who not to talk to. One of the first things I size up when debating whether to discuss politics with someone is whether it’s going to be a discussion or a series of alternating lectures. If it’s obvious that nothing I say is going to have an effect, I simply don’t say anything. Otherwise I think one can be drawn to the most outspoken and least reasonable faction of the other party.

    This is particularly true if for one reason or another you do not come across as particularly reasonable. People that are more open-minded will either harden up or excise themselves from the discussion. People that love to argue and demonstrate their moral/intellectual superiority, on the other hand, will only get more excited.

    There are factions on the left and right where it’s all B&W and others where it’s shades of gray. I think that generally speaking, Willard is correct that this faction is somewhat larger on the right, though I think that the difference is often over-stated.

  20. Webmaster says:

    Will,

    When I used the term “bullshit” I used it in the way I explained – the “art”, to put it cordially, of trying to reword the same old argument in hopes of tricking someone into thinking it’s a new argument. A great example of my meaning would be in Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part 1, in which the dole office clerk aptly redescribes the “standup philosopher”, who self-reportedly “coalesce[s] the vapors of human existence into a viable and meaningful comprehension”, as “a bullshit artist.”

    That is what I mean by the line between “nuance” and “bullshit” that I’ve seen many on the left ignore – a definite desire to hide the true meaning of what is being said behind excessively flowery, verbose language, or ever-changing terms (such as the various and ever-changing names of certain political front groups, or the ever-changing terms and buzzwords for what’s currently being called “global climate change” that seem to alter every couple years). Some of this is a tactic adopted by both sides, of course; the idea of one side being “Pro-Life” while the other is “Pro-Choice” is a false dichotomy, because each side is arguing what they feel is a “black and white” issue (one I feel really deserves to be a shades-of-grey issue) and by choosing their “Pro-whatever” they automatically paint the other side as “anti-whatever.” I’m not going to say that both sides don’t do it, but I have seen that the left does it far more often, and particularly does it in places where a plain-spoken and 100% accurate rendering of their goals is far less palatable to most people (“national health care system” vs “socialism” or “affirmative action” vs “race-based preferences and quotas” to give two examples). It isn’t “nuance” to play with the terms to try to make them sound better. You can either defend your plan on the merits, or it’s not meritable at all.

    What I think is being missed in general are the following points:

    #1 – Some issues are, in fact, black & white.
    #2 – Some issues do, in fact, require “nuance” or “shades of grey.”
    #3 – The primary question is which of those two we are dealing with.

    #4 – ONLY once we have agreement on points 1-3 can we actually get into the discussion of either (a) which side is black and which white, or (b) where on the sliding scale of grey we should be.

    Necessary corrolary: trying to Godwin the discussion, or confuse it unnecessarily (see above re: “nuance” versus “bullshit”) is decidedly unhelpful. Being unable to point out when someone is engaging in siad behavior, unfortunately, is equally unhelpful to the discussion.

  21. Bobvis says:

    ”national health care system” vs “socialism”

    It seems to me that the latter term is just an insult, not a more honest label.

  22. Webmaster says:

    Bobvis,

    Then how, precisely, would you describe a system in which an entire sector of the economy is nationalized and in which the nationalized resources are doled out only at government discretion?

  23. trumwill says:

    Web,

    As you point out, packaging ideas in more flattering terms is a pretty universal concept. “Tax relief”, “Marriage penalty”, “Death tax”, “Raising taxes” (vs declining to extend designed by law to be temporary), and on and on. Platforms and speeches are written by committees that pick language designed to convince the most amount of people. That language then filters down to the supporters of those politicians, parties, and policies. I agree that it’s not nuance, but it’s not the basis for the claim that the left displays a greater degree of nuance.

    As for your claim that sometimes nuance is preferable and sometimes it isn’t, I absolute, 100% agree with you.

    Even with your revised definition of BS, though, my original point remains. If you go in with the expectation that the other side is going to engage in dishonest behavior, make accusations on your character, and so on… your expectations will usually be met. Doesn’t matter whether you are talking to the right or the left. People interested in civil discourse will likely be turned off or will harden their stance, people most interested in acrimoniously shouting across their point of view are most likely to speak up, you’re* more likely to interpret what is said as being hostile and accusatory whether it is meant that way or not, and the hostility is likely to escalate.

    Under those circumstances, it becomes pretty easy to conclude that the other side is more innately hostile. You see yourself as having to shout to get your point across and cut through what they’re saying. You see their shouting as evidence of how unreasonable they are.

    I’m not going to claim to be a paragon of virtue. I lose my tempter. I have issues on which I am suspicious of the people that disagree and other issues where I plainly think that the people that disagree just don’t understand, aren’t thinking things through, or must have a vested interest contrary to the public good. I do know, however, that whenever I try to make my points without watching myself closely I am likely to be met with hostility and it won’t be their fault. If I enter the discussion with the belief that they’re going to be dishonest or antagonistic, I’m almost certain to invite responses that are both (or at least the latter) regardless of who I am sparring with.

    Sometimes, of course, it doesn’t matter how you approach the situation. That you hold the position you do makes you worthy of contempt. I’ve run into this, too. I’ve been called (or had it strongly implied that I am) a racist by people of the left and I’ve been called (or had it strongly implied that I am) a traitor by people of the right even when I’m on my absolute best behavior. What I’ve found, though, is that since I’ve chilled out, a whole lot of other people chilled out, too, and I discuss politics with a lot more interesting and thought-provoking people than I used to.

    * – By “you” I am referring to the collective second person. Not Web in particular. I actually speak somewhat from my own experience here.

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