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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Political Thinking (2)


Categories really screw us up in politics when they reinforce a partisanship that retards a functioning government. Right vs. Left, Liberal vs. Conservative, Extreme vs. Moderate. Then there are the tags of Libertarian, Communist, Socialist, Reactionary, Atheist, Secularist, Islamist, Fundamentalist which we us to disparage the “other side.” Indeed political categories often set up an adversarial relationship. Partisan thinking adopts the narrative of a war between two sides: the virtuous and the wicked—which of course is “my side” against “your side.”

Such categorization is a refusal to think “out of the box” and ultimately a refusal to think at all. We see a lot of that on the slogans or characterizations on the Internet where often the argument is ad hominem (e.g. attacking the depravity of the individual) which is no argument at all. There is no way to have a conversation if one is immediately dismissed as alien or dumb or wrong or unpatriotic.

I have tried conversing with my Cousin Vinnie. But even when I spend time discussing certain points, send him “fact-checks” that show the errors of an accusation he just passed on, or accept his points while arguing for others, he dismisses “my side” with a “you are wrong.” Discussing climate change responses, of which and to whom we admittedly could argue the benefits and drawbacks of each, is simply dismissed with a rejection of the evidence. Or simply uses anecdotal evidence: e.g. the planet is not warming which is proved by the cold in the North East this winter.

I admire those who are trying to foster an open democratic politics by attending to the “frame” of the thinking and discussion (eg., cognitive linguist George Lackoff). A frame is a structure of categories and often an implied narrative that is already in place. I admire Evolutionary Psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s effort in identifying six moral foundations of human behavior as a way to understand both the commonalities and differences in thinking and acting politically and so making possible understanding and collaboration among opposing points of view.

I diagram my own takeaway from his thoughtful analysis. But the diagram itself is misleading because it seems to identify two camps or sides rather than a continuum of shared values.


While I do not think that my Cousin Vinnie will want to spend the energy dealing with such analysis and break out of his own categories by considering some mega-categories, perhaps some citizens, politicians, and political analysts might.

Recently retiring John Dingell, the longest serving US Congressman, said that prior to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, the majority party would always try to take in the viewpoint and values of the minority party in developing legislation. But Gingrich changed all that by establishing the concept of two enemy camps with a winner take all mentality and centralizing all power in the Speaker’s Office.

To restore Congress as the great deliberative body representing all viewpoints and resolving clashing opinions would mean a rethinking of present categories so that people will understand that opponents do not mean enemies, that there are many ways of singing the world, and that we need to transcend a win-lose or no-yes mentality. 

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