Saturday, March 15, 2014

Politics and the Language of Hatred

One of the most exasperating things you can do on the internet is to look at the comments section of an article about any kind of political issue. If you had no political knowledge and came to any given article, there is a good chance you would come away with one of two prevailing opinions. One is that the Right are all ruthlessly selfish backstabbing cut-throat cackling moustache-twirlers who actively seek other people's suffering for the sake of their own profit. The other is that the Left are all deranged irrational zealots who want to never pay for anything and for everybody in the world to march in step. Neither of these are, of course, true. The Right no more desire to succeed at the expense of others than the Left wish to force a false sense of equality down our throats.
Perhaps it has always been true that a prevailing delusion exists among certain sectors of the population that whoever yells the loudest wins the argument. Yet I am not simply talking about an argumentum ad nauseam here, but rather the framing of political discourse in terms so vituperative and irrationally hateful that any actual development of thought is impossible. Politics, such as it is, depends on compromise - realistic politics at least, I would argue - but in some that temptation which encourages us to eschew all thoughts of compromise and stubbornly adhere to a "my way or the highway" attitude can be overwhelming. What is the solution, therefore? To denounce your opponents. The Left are Stalinists, they're commies (as if communism was objectively evil), they're looters and lunatics and scroungers, scabs and robbers. If it's a libertarian stance on a social issue, then they're perverts, sickos, they're putting the interests of a minority ahead of the rest. The Right, in turn, are usually Nazis or fascists, they're slavers, gluttons, elitists and pigs. If it's an authoritarian stance on a social issue, they're backwards, brainwashed, swimming against the tide of history. Beyond being offensive or otherwise, they're simply irrelevant. Here the argumentum ad hominem rears its head: attack your opponent personally, and better still, make generalisations about entire political stances. It's pointless nonsense.
Perhaps if we could put all political extremists in one place where they could yell and scream at each other as much as they want and let other people do the talking elsewhere then our discourse would at least be more purposeful. Yet the point at which we would draw the line would, I fear, be hard to define. Each of us has in ourselves that temptation to take an extreme point of view. It might be stronger in some than in others, as a matter of disposition or circumstance, but it definitely still exists. People may be reasonable on some issues and extreme on others. So how do we remedy the situation?
We have to assume, I think, that the worst extremists on either side of any issue are a vocal minority who, for whatever reason, struggle to accept the opinions of others. This is probably, in truth, due to deeply personal matters of self-esteem and insecurity not ultimately related to the political discourse which gives them shape. That aside, how do we improve things for ourselves? How can we encourage ourselves to be more reasonable and more balanced in our political discourse? Personally I believe that the solution is education. We need to educate ourselves first of all on the issues of the day from multiple sides, putting aside any extremist arguments. Synthesis is the core component of compromise. Of course there will be positions which cannot be resolved with one another, but I am thinking of citizens who, in general, have comparable codes of ethics and are able to separate politics from personal considerations like religion.
Yet I don't think it's simply a matter of people doing their research. I think it's a matter of the way in which we're raised to think and to learn. There are, of course, deep-rooted socioeconomic problems which prevent all the citizens of practically any country having equal educational opportunities, but I nonetheless believe that discourse begins with education, especially in the humanities. In Australia our curriculum as it presently stands makes efforts in that direction - although there are currently worrying movements in the government suggestive of that situation being changed - and of course our teachers in the overwhelming majority of cases, as far as I am aware, are trained in and support a synthetic approach to learning. My particular sphere is tertiary, but having friends, relatives and acquaintances at the primary and secondary level suggest to me that it is reasonably consistent: not that there is no right way or wrong way, necessarily, to approach specific tasks, but rather that learning is not unidirectional.
Education in this way does not refer to book smarts or high marks. I am talking rather of exploring different sources and regarding different views of history, culture and ethics. It's not about a 'higher' education per se, but rather focusing on a rounded, robust education and approach to learning which leads people to seeing the world in new ways. This is one of the advantages, I would argue, of not exclusively pursuing utilitarian approaches to education. Equipping young people for the future is not simply a matter, in my opinion, of them getting a good job, but rather having a healthy attitude towards the world in general. This is the kind of attitude that is going to get things done to bring about a society which is more rife with opportunity and more comfortable for all, one which is not influenced by fruitless extremism, and one which is not constipating endlessly over the same issues. Preferably the challenges we face in the future will be new challenges.
Educated people are more open to a variety of ideas and opinions. They are used to scrutinising different approaches to problems and, hopefully, theorising consistent solutions which criss-cross various perspectives. In historical or literary criticism, for instance, you cannot simply shout down your opponent. Diverse points of view become the foundation of more synthesised solutions. The only room for extremism in the educated mind is as a source of ideas which must be either dismissed as pointlessly exclusive or harsh, or extruded into more reasonable territory. There is no room for hatred or space for personal attacks or generalisations in this kind of learning environment. Educated discourse depends on explanation, evidence and analysis. It also, I would argue, agrees on a common humanity as the basis for communication.
The whole point of better discourse is to reach better solutions. We need to accept that we can be creatures of compromise or we can suffer. That's the nature of the choice. We need to prevent voices of hatred co-opting our discussion, because we need minds which are both rational and adult to make decisions. As individuals, we need to resist that voice which tells us to make generalisations, to ignore that tiny seed of fear which wants us to shy away from reasonable opinions which are different to our own. Above all, we need to communicate, deliberate and refine in matters of policy. To be able to do this, we need to take time to learn. We need to be well-informed, to approach problems from multiple angles, and we need to help others to do the same if possible, and if not possible to ignore those loud but ultimately meaningless voices. This may seem like an unexpected approach from 'Opinions Can Be Wrong', but politics can be a matter of life and death, of suffering or safety, and this is where reasonable discourse really matters. It will hopefully help us to find solutions to the universal truth of human problems. Nothing in the world is every really ideal, but our political discourse definitely can be better if we try.

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