Win at any Cost? A commentary on a losing strategy

In today’s marketplace of ideas it is easy to get bogged down in the game of name-calling. The idea being that it is much easier to discount someone’s argument once their personal reputation has been soiled.  Unfortunately, this seems to be “winning” strategy on all sides of the political spectrum and the election season IS its peak season.

I wish to offer a flag of truce to my friends on the left as an opportunity to look at the means by which we are battling for the culture this nation. I would like to investigate the questions- Is there a truly principled, productive, and consistent approach to engaging in the “culture war” of ideas and beliefs? Or is “winning” the only measure that we can pay attention to? I believe there is a common ground and space for sincere debate and dialogue that can and should be agreed upon if we are to re-unite our splintering nation again!  The importance of finding common ground can be easily forgotten but has served our nation well up to this point. Indeed, it is healthy to realize that we are all part of the same American family and all our national hopes, flaws, dreams, failures and achievements rest on our shoulders equally.  Our goal should not be to perpetually find fault and mud-sling as we have much commonality including our intense love of our ideals that we wish to promote.

In what follows I will lay out 3 items related to how this current strategy of “win at all costs” is actually a losing strategy. I will discuss- 1. some common mistakes that we tend to make in controversial discussions, 2. suggestions for finding common ground, and 3. a set of questions to prompt further consideration and discussion regarding the political state of our nation.

What are some common mistakes we make?

Misrepresenting the other side:

  • One thing that I notice more and more these days is that each side loves to point out inconsistencies on the other side. I find myself doing this as well and this is not wrong to do per se. However, it does become problematic when, in the process of arguing against our opponent, we present a  caricature of of their argument without really taking their perspective seriously.  This is technically called a straw man fallacy and like all logical fallacies, this one should be avoided (See my articles rebutting the straw man fallacy- Response to Meme Quoting Neil deGrasse Tyson AND Evaluating a Meme on Evolution AND An Open Letter To Cal Thomas).  It is easy to poke holes in someone else’s argument when they are not around to defend it, however, we should at least attempt to present their perspective accurately.  I often hear people who disagree with my perspective making arguments that overgeneralize regarding the beliefs of people who consider themselves evangelical Christians. They do this without qualifying their argument or making concessions for the nuances within the opposition’s worldview. This is not a fair way to handle opposing viewpoints. Those who do it (I have done it myself many times- unfortunately) should apply the golden rule to this situation and deal with others the way they would like to be dealt with.
Not exposing ourselves to contrary beliefs:
  • We can also see both sides using data that is handpicked in favor of their argument while intentionally avoiding pertinent data that opposes our argument. This too is a fallacious form of argument that is called confirmation bias and I write about it my article- Response to Recent Study: “Unlocking the Full Potential of Women at Work”.  Not all evidence is equal in the sense that some evidence and data that we bring to the table will be more compelling than others.  However, we should not try to persuade our audience that there are no relevant claims or evidence against our position if we are aware of those arguments existing. Overstating our argument is a result of under-estimating or not even addressing arguments and evidence against our claim. This is an easy way to lose credibility.  Being honest about contrary view-points while remaining confident in our own position is a way to earn trust and respect of on-lookers as well as the opposition.  Since we are expecting that our arguments should be listened to and taken seriously with the potential of persuading some, we should, in principle, be opened to be persuaded as well.  This does NOT mean that we should enter into the marketplace of ideas with NO understanding of our own worldview and simply believe everything we hear. It does mean, however, that it is not good for us to insulated ourselves from the world thereby guaranteeing that we never interact with contrary perspectives. When we stay in the “echo-chamber” of self-confirming beliefs too long we lose our ability to really know how do defend ourselves.

Name calling:

  • Sometimes we see the character of an individual or group smeared in order to promote an alternative viewpoint. However, by merely making the observation that someone’s character  is less than (or has been on occasion less than) virtuous one should NOT infer that- necessarily, that person’s argument or propositional beliefs on a specific subject are incorrect. We also cannot infer that the person doing the character attack holds correct beliefs or a better argument. This is not to say that character should not matter when we are electing leaders or evaluating individuals. However, it is to say that we need to be in constant search for the truth of a subject instead of being persuaded by peripheral concerns. I have written about this in my article entitled- “You are such an angry and judgmental person!” .

Assuming that all members in a group agree:

  • We have to understand that Democrats and Republicans (and Libertarians) are suspect to making mistakes as we are all human.  I have noticed recently that Donald Trump is considered the epitome of what some Democrats have said that Republicans are all along. They say that he is a racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, idiotic, homophobic, bumbling, unintelligent person.  This is a problem for anyone who considers themselves conservative or evangelical even if we did not vote for him in the primaries (although conservative and Republican are obviously NOT the same thing anymore).  It is asserted that we are guilty by association with the party. Regardless, this election cycle has made it more than clear that the electorate in this country is more diverse than some seem to imply. No longer should someone simply think- liberal=Democrat or conservative=Republican. There are emerging groups that are comprised of very diverse backgrounds and goals.
  • Many on the political left will say of Donald Trump and therefore Republicans- “see look at all of these Trump supporters! they all agree with him on every subject and policy and they all share the same negative characteristics with him. We knew it all along that this is who Republicans are”. Although Trump was confirmed by the RNC as the Republican nominee, it is uncharitable and over-simplistic to make assumptions like that. This type of accusation may also be called the Fallacy of Composition-  “the error of assuming that what is true of a member of a group is true for the group as a whole.” (Google)
  • We understand that his nomination is a potentially terrible signal as to where the party is going, however, we should not paint with such a broad stroke. Indeed, Democrats are having their own identity issues right now and this is something that should cause empathy not derision for the sake of earning political points. It is also incorrect to assume that, if someone votes for Trump, that they approve of him. They could be voting for him as a strategy to minimize Hillary’s chances.

 

A common ground?
Below I have attempted to develop a list of items that I believe can and should guide all our interactions with people we disagree by bringing us to a place of common understanding.
  • Be grateful – We were born into a specific location and time in history that we did not choose to be born into.  In that sense we are all equal.  We should try to understand our context compared with the context of others today and throughout history. Appreciate our special context by attempting to understand history of different peoples and cultures throughout the world.  Avoid the belief that we deserve to be given things simply because of who we are. It is up to every generation and individual to decide to take on the mantle and responsibility of freedom and liberty. We cannot just idly handle the blessings we have been given.
  • Follow the golden rule– This starts by assuming the best intentions in your opponent. This is not to say that we should naively trust everyone but it is to say that we should give people the benefit of the doubt when able. How would we like to be treated? I can say anecdotally that my parents marriage was saved in part by this concept. Each of my parents decided to make a choice about how they viewed the other person. They chose to focus on their spouse’s attributes that they admired and loved and did not let the fact that each person had potentially negative attributes paint their opinions or interactions with each other. Before they knew it, their behaviors fell in line with their positive understanding of each other and they no longer had to make a strong effort to see the other person as beautiful and well intentioned.
  • Respect the rules of the game– We need to have a strong understanding of how our political system works which includes an appreciation for the system itself. If we come into an argument with someone who disagrees on policy with us, there is a possibility that they also disagree with the rules of the game in terms of how we are to understand the role of government and how to interpret the constitution. If we are coming at a policy matter from completely different foundational beliefs on role of government and interpretation of the constitution, then it would do us better to discuss those items first. If we don’t, the conversation will likely go nowhere.  People will still have strong disagreements while agreeing on the role and scope of government but there is no chance of any bi-partisanship if we don’t at least agree on the basics.  In my opinion, we see too many policy arguments in soundbites today and not enough substantive debate over foundational questions related to the nature of government. For an example of someone trying to find common ground and common goals in government watch this Great Speech by Senator Ben Sasse
  • Attempt to live by principles and not by feelings alone. Develop an ethos or code to live life by. This does NOT need to be religious in any respect. See Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues as an example
  • Understand that not all ideas are equally beneficial. The proliferation of post-modern ideals (if that makes sense!) are having a negative effect on our ability to distinguish good ideas from bad ideas. Indeed it is destroying the entire category that “good and bad” belong in. See my article- Relativism, Religious Pluralism, and Tolerance. Our common goal should always be to seek truth. In order to seek truth we need to first agree that truth exists. (See Truth and the Law of Non-contradiction)
  • Understand yourself -try to introspect often in order to gauge your mood and understand why you hold certain deeply held beliefs. Are these beliefs based on a sound or unsound premise? Do you merely believe what you do because of you upbringing or are there also other reasons?  Understand what is at the center of your web of beliefs. What truths do you hold very dearly and will most likely NOT change your mind on? What are the issues that are more periphery in your worldview that you are more open to being flexible on? Understand your weaknesses, strengths and biases so that you can self-disclose this to others. Self-understanding and disclosure to others is recommended as an ethical imperative in many of the “helping professions” including psychology and counseling as a way to build trust between patient and practitioner.
  • Understand the audience and situation– Not every situation will require a full blown defense of your ethos. Not every hill is worth dying on. Not every person you disagree with will be open minded or even willing to be persuaded.
  • Understand the basics of argumentation and logic– This is a great way to be on the same page with someone. You can each point out when a logical fallacy has been used, you can guide the conversation and understand to whom the burden of proof falls etc… See my articles- Argumentation and Logic and Truth and the Law of Non-contradiction)
  • Join forums and participate with groups that promote open discussion– AND if there is not a group like this, create one!  See my article- philosophical society agreement. In order to perpetuate freedom of thought and expression and to honor those who do not have or have not had access to it, we are obligated to have this type of discourse in society.
  • Do not be a “know it all”– Even though we should seek truth and constantly be learning new things we need to avoid feeling like we always have to know every answer to every question. Even though we are aware of a certain subject, it does not mean that we are an expert on it and it is always good to preface any comment made in that circumstance that we are not too familiar with the subject before stating an opinion.  Admit when we are not aware of something.

 

Questions for continued consideration and discuss

The below set of questions seem to be at the heart of most public policy debates today. The way that one answers each question will give a good indication of which direction they tend to lean politically.

  • Would you applaud or deride a public servant (state Attorney General, City Mayor, local judge, county clerk, etc…) for not enforcing or following a law if that law was in conflict with their conscience?

The above question relates specifically with the recent Kim Davis fiasco which the following article shows a potential double standard on the left and a form of special pleading- Two Public Servants on Different Sides of History

  • Would you agree that people should be able to vote and act according to their worldview?
  • Would you vote for Donald Trump if the situation was reversed? (he endorsed the Democratic platform and Hillary endorsed the Republican platform) A question about straight ticket voting and identity politics.
  • Would your arguments against “evangelical” Trump supporters be different if another Republican candidate was running against Hillary ? i.e. if say, Ted Cruz or Ben Carson were the nominee. My guess is the arguments would be similar.
  • Is there a limit to the concept of “live and let live”?
  • What is the role of the federal government?
  • Do you believe in Big Business throwing its weight around in politics? I hear many cheering the decisions of big corporations who are trying to counteract the democratically enacted legislation in states by way of extortion. These same people seem to complain about big companies being involved at other levels or for other causes- Rebutting Leftist Talking Points (see the section on bathroom policies)
  • Is showing preference to and favoring a class/group of people over another group/s of people truly beneficial and just? related to protected classes and affirmative action policy.
  • Is the government system that we have currently supposed to promote change that occurs very quickly?
  • Has the Supreme Court ever made a wrong decision?
  • Is there a difference between an immutable characteristic of a person and that persons behavior?
  • What is “multiculturalism”? Should it be a priority in a nation that is becoming more and more fragmented?
  • What kind of speech was First Amendment’s right to Free Speech meant to protect?
  • What is the criteria by which  we decide what an unalienable right is?
  • Are benefits given to people from the government the same as rights?
  • Are political or religious conversations worth having with people who do not agree? See my article- Rule #1: Never talk about religion or politics at the dinner table

Conclusion

I am hoping that people will continue to come together on common ground in order to have substantive and meaningful debate and dialogue. I have been encouraged as i have seen this begin to occur even in the midst of this divisive election season. This reuniting of competing ideas is what has made our nation great in the past and I believe that it can happen again.

 

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