Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category
Four years ago, as a speechwriter for President Obama, I commissioned a binder full of women.
A little context. It was the morning of the Al Smith Dinner, the election-year tradition in which both parties’ nominees don white-tie attire and deliver comedy monologues to New York City’s elite. Our opponent, Governor Mitt Romney had recently used the words “binders full of women” while discussing gender parity in government. Eager to mock the clumsy phrase, I asked a staffer on the advance team to put together a prop.
But our binder never saw the light of day. Obama nixed the idea. I remember being disappointed by the president’s decision, and wondering if POTUS was phoning it in. Of the jokes that did make it into the final draft, one in particular stood out for its authenticity.
“In less than three weeks, voters in states like Ohio and Virginia and Florida will decide this incredibly important election. Which begs the question—what are we doing here?”
Fair point. Even in its best, most amicable years, the Al Smith dinner is a festival of uncomfortableness. Two candidates have spent the better part of a year locked in fierce, often personal, head-to-head competition. There’s something cruel about forcing them to pretend to enjoy one another’s company.
But looking back on it, there’s also something optimistic about the Al Smith dinner—or at least there was in 2012. I think this (along with a sensible aversion to prop comedy) is the real reason Obama said no to the idea of bringing a binder full of women onstage. Since 1945, the Al Smith dinner has been a democratic display of mutual, if slightly forced, respect. The candidates’ punchlines aren’t meant to suggest that politics is a joke, or a game. Rather, they acknowledge a bedrock principle of American society: Even in our most adversarial moments, we’re all on the same team. . .
Deepak Malhotra has a very interesting article in the “negotiations” section of the Harvard Business Review:
Despite recent setbacks — from video of Donald Trump bragging about committing sexual assaults, to increasing concerns regarding his preparedness and temperament, to the unprecedented pace at which high-profile Republicans are pulling their support — polls show that approximately 40% of likely voters continue to support Trump. On the one hand, this is good news for Clinton supporters who foresee a comfortable margin of victory. On the other, unless Trump loses by historic margins, it is bad news for America.
When Americans wake up on November 9, we will need to reexamine how we can work with and live with each other. We will have to re-learn how to respect and listen to one another. It’s never easy after a national election, but it has also never been more difficult. There is one simple reason for this. While presidential candidates of both parties, throughout American history, have often relied on fear and anger to boost their electoral odds, Trump is the first major party candidate to have relied so intensely on hate.
Hate is unique in its ability to spare neither perpetrator nor victim. It’s very hard to hate without inspiring hate in others. Hate is not easily contained. Fear can grow or shrink, anger can escalate or subside, but hate sinks in. It becomes a part of us. It even begins to dictate what is to be feared, why we should be angry, and who is good or evil. Fear and anger might make it difficult for us to work with each other, but hate strips away our willingness to even try.
It’s normal—and okay—for some people to be jubilant and others to be upset after an election. It’s okay for fear and even anger to linger in the wake of a national referendum. There is a lot at stake. But hate is not normal, and it cannot be allowed to gain legitimacy. If it does, it can irreparably rend the constituent fabric of a country.
If this ends up being a close election, it will allow hate to retain the foothold it needs to survive. That is why, for the first time in U.S. history, Americans need one candidate—in this case, Donald Trump—to lose decisively. A loss of historic proportions is the only way to ensure that future candidates are never again tempted to consort with the politics of hate. It is the only outcome that will allow Americans of tomorrow to peer into the reflecting pool of history and say “that is not who we are.”
So how do we get there? Is it really possible to change the minds of those who continue to support Donald Trump? In some cases, almost certainly not. But in others, I am confident that it is. More generally, how can you nudge someone to reevaluate a deep-seated belief? How do you make progress when people are entrenched in their positions? How can you convince someone to abandon a course of action to which they are emotionally, ideologically, or publically committed?
In my research, consulting, advisory work with businesses and governments, and in my bookNegotiating the Impossible, I focus precisely on situations that seem hopeless. One of the problems that we regularly face in these environments is how to get someone to challenge a long-held belief or preference. As it turns out, having facts and data on your side is not enough. If someone’s ego or identity is on the line, overwhelming them with evidence will do little good.
If you want people to change course, you have to create an “exit ramp” for them. This entails creating the space and safety they need to acknowledge and pursue a better way forward. Here’s how you might go about doing that when the situation is emotionally or ideologically charged.
- Don’t force them to defend their beliefs. Whether you’re having drinks at a bar or scrolling through your Facebook feed, when you come across someone whose views you find abhorrent or absurd, it’s tempting to engage them in a debate. After all, it seems like a reasonable way to get someone to change their mind. The problem is, when you tell people they are wrong, stupid, immoral or irrational, they simply dig in and get more entrenched in their views. This is because no matter how confident you are that they are misguided, they will always be able to find at least one line of defense. All they need is one reason that you might be wrong, one weakness in your argument, or one factor that supports their position—and then they can claim it is the most important factor in the entire debate. When your “discussion” is over, they are more firmly committed to their position than they were before.
- Provide information, and then give them time. When dealing with someone who passionately disagrees with you, a more effective approach than debating is to provide information without demanding anything in return. You might say (or post on Facebook) something along the lines of: “That’s interesting. Here’s some information I came across. You might find it useful given your interest in this topic.” Or, “when you get a chance, I’d appreciate you taking a look at this.” You’ve done about as much as you can for now. If they can consider what you’ve said without carrying the additional burden of having to agree with you, it is more likely it sinks in a little bit. This is why, over weeks and months, polls do change. Trump has lost ground as additional information about his behavior and temperament and weak grasp of issues has come to light. But the change doesn’t tend to happen during a heated argument. It doesn’t happen immediately.
- Don’t fight bias with bias. . . .
The whole list is worth considering, and it obviously has broader application than just Trump/Clinton. Later in the list:
- Help them save face. Just because you’ve finally convinced someone that they were wrong, or that they should reconsider their point of view, doesn’t mean they will actually change course. People won’t change their behavior if they can’t find a way to do it without losing face. The question we often fail to ask is: have we made it safe for them to change course? How will they change their mind without looking like they have been foolish or naïve? If you can’t find a way for them to change their attitude or actions without being able to save face, you still have a problem.
- Give them the cover they need. Often what’s required is some change in the situation—however small or symbolic—that allows them to say, “That’s why I changed my mind.” For example, a former Trump supporter who is looking to abandon Trump might find the excuse they need to do so after a poor debate performance (“It showed me he is not prepared for the job”), a new allegation of sexual assault (“It’s now too many for them to have all been made up”), or a recent Trump attack on other Republicans (“Going after Paul Ryan shows that he really isn’t a conservative”). For most people, these events are just “one more thing” that happened, but don’t underestimate the powerful role they can play in helping people who, while finally mentally ready to change their position, are worried about how to take the last, decisive step.
UPDATE: And very relevant to the above, read “The white flight of Derek Black,” by Eli Saslow, which describes how going to college, learning new ideas, and making new friends allowed a young white nationalist to wake up, re-evaluate his beliefs, and find a new direction. Well worth reading and a very interesting story about how much a college can affect the direction of one’s life.
UPDATE 2: And read “Unfollow” in the New Yorker about a woman raised in the Westboro Baptist Church (“God hates fags”) and her awakening.
Dana Milbank has an interesting column in the Washington Post. From the column:
… [T]he Trump fiasco has been more than two decades in the making, going back to Newt Gingrich’s destruction of civility, Bill Clinton’s personal misconduct, a Supreme Court that, in Bush v. Gore, delegitimized democracy, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney squandering the warm courage of national unity after 9/11, a bipartisan cycle of revenge in Congress, angry liberals portraying Bush as a war criminal, the fury and racial animus of the tea party and the birthers, GOP leaders too timid to tamp down the excesses, and Supreme Court decisions that allowed anonymous groups to spend unlimited sums poisoning the airwaves with vicious and false political speech.
My colleagues and I in the news business deserve much of the blame. Fox News essentially created Trump as a political figure, validating his birther nonsense and giving him an unparalleled platform before he launched his campaign. The rest of the news media, and most visibly CNN, gave the entertainer undiluted and uncritical coverage (at least until he secured the nomination), sacrificing journalistic integrity for viewers and readers. If you don’t report on Trump’s latest action, utterance or outrage, you won’t get the clicks or the ratings. And the combination of social media and a news industry fragmented by ideology allows an increasingly polarized public to choose only information that confirms their political views. . .
Technically Bush is a war criminal for ordering the torture of prisoners. Torturing prisoners is a war crime.
But the point is, Rome didn’t fall in a day.
Makes sense to me. Kevin Drum blogs in Mother Jones.
The video is in this post at MediaMatters.org. When you watch the video you will see that finding a compromise that meets the interests of various factions is going to be challenging. It also makes one question the efficacy (and perhaps also the goals) of American education. It’s true that Texas specifically prohibits the teaching of critical thinking skills. Without such skills, … well, watch the video. And reflect that those without critical thinking skills don’t have the tools to deal with what you see: they are defenseless and unprepared.
In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift has a wicked political satire in the voyage to Lilliput, but the satire is also thoughtful as well as pointed. There were two great disagreements. One was whether heels should be high, or low. Both sides, the Low and the High, defended their positions fiercely, but compromise was possible: heels come in all heights, and you find a height that’s low enough to placate the Lows and high enough to shut up the Highs, a height between the extremes.
Unfortunately, the other great disagreement was not so adapted to compromise. This was the disagreement between the Big-Endians, who thought you cracked a hard-boiled egg on the large end, and the Small-Endians, who maintained that the egg is cracked on the small end. (I’m a Big-Endian myself.)
That disagreement, like the actual disagreement in the US on abortion, doesn’t lend itself to compromise. Some say issues that do not lend themselves to compromise have no place in politics because politics consists of working to find the most satisfying (or least unsatisfying) compromise. (In this connection, I highly recommend Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Ury. Inexpensive secondhand copies abound.)
Very interesting review by Thomas Nagel in the NY Review of Books:
The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy
by Anthony Gottlieb
Liveright, 293 pp., $28.95
It is fascinating to learn about the concrete historical circumstances under which great philosophical works—works that have become timeless classics—were produced, and about the relation to their own times of the extraordinary individuals who produced them. For those with limited firsthand knowledge of the works this biographical approach can serve as an accessible introduction or reintroduction to the thought of some of the most important creators of our intellectual world. Anthony Gottlieb, a former executive editor of The Economist who is not a philosopher but a philosophical fellow traveler, is writing just such a history of the entire course of Western philosophy. The first volume, The Dream of Reason (2000),* took the story from ancient Greece to the Renaissance. The second volume, The Dream of Enlightenment, ends in the eighteenth century; a third volume will take us from Kant to the present day.
Gottlieb concentrates most of his discussion on six philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries whose stature and influence are especially great—Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, and Hume—along with shorter treatments of Bayle, Voltaire, and Rousseau, and brief comments on many other figures. Here is what he says at the outset:
It is because they still have something to say to us that we can easily get these philosophers wrong. It is tempting to think that they speak our language and live in our world. But to understand them properly, we must step back into their shoes. That is what this book tries to do.
Gottlieb exaggerates the intellectual distance of these figures from us: it isn’t that they speak our language, but that we speak their language, because our world has been significantly formed by them. And he does not always succeed in stepping back into their shoes, which in the case of a great philosopher means understanding his thoughts from the inside, as well as in relation to his historical milieu. Nevertheless Gottlieb’s biographical narrative is vivid and often illuminating. Most important, he emphasizes throughout that these men lived in a historical period dominated by dramatic developments and conflicts in three areas—science, religion, and politics—and that their thoughts and writings were dominated by the need to respond to those developments, and to understand the relations among them.
First, there was the scientific revolution, which introduced a new way of understanding the physical world through universal laws, mathematically formulated, that govern everything that happens in space and time. Although knowledge of those laws is based on observation and experiment, the reality they describe is not directly available to human perception, but can be known only by theoretical inference. Two of Gottlieb’s thinkers, Descartes and Leibniz, were major contributors to the mathematical sciences—Descartes through the creation of analytic geometry (hence the term “Cartesian coordinates”) and Leibniz through the invention of the calculus (which was created independently by Newton). Descartes also produced theories of mechanics, optics, and physiology, Leibniz made significant contributions to dynamics, and Spinoza worked in optics and conducted experiments in hydrodynamics and metallurgy. But all six grappled with the question of how the austere physical reality revealed by the new science is related to the familiar world that we perceive—and to our minds, in which both perception and scientific reasoning take place.
Second, after the Reformation and the terrible wars of religion it had become clear that the plurality of religious beliefs in Christendom was not going to disappear. This posed questions both about the grounds for religious belief and about how governments should choose between imposing a single orthodoxy and tolerating diversity. In addition, each of these philosophers had to be concerned about the relation of his own work to the religious orthodoxy of his community, and about the dangers of ostracism, repression, or persecution. Descartes was deterred by the condemnation of Galileo from publishing his cosmological theories, and Spinoza was excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam.
Third, the basis of legitimate political authority was coming seriously into question, with skepticism about the divine right of kings and support for the right of subjects to overthrow a ruler who abused his power. This was not just theoretical: it took concrete form in the English civil war that culminated with the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the Glorious Revolution that replaced James II with William of Orange in 1688. Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, and Rousseau all produced theories of political authority starting from the subject’s rather than the ruler’s point of view.
The metaphysical and epistemological problems that arose out of the scientific revolution are particularly difficult and abstract, and the responses of these thinkers are among the most formidable structures that philosophy has produced. They were concerned, as philosophers have always been, to understand the nature of reality in the broadest sense: what kinds of things and facts ultimately constitute everything there is. They were also concerned with whether we humans have the capacity to discover the answers to those questions, and if not, what limits to our knowledge are imposed by our finite human faculties. The advances of the scientific revolution gave these problems a new form.
Given how much he has to cover, Gottlieb does a pretty good job of summarizing the complex speculative responses of his philosophers. They are contributions to a collective intellectual inquiry that has continued ever since, and their value lies in working out some of the main alternative possibilities for making the most general sense of reality. Others can then explore, refine, and elaborate those proposals, and attempt to refute or defend them, or at least to evaluate their relative plausibility. I will confine myself—with apologies for the capsule presentation—to one metaphysical example, the mind–body problem, which grew directly out of the scientific revolution and is very much still with us.
The problem arose because the new mathematical conception of physical reality dehumanized it. Among other things, that conception left out all the rich qualitative aspects, such as color, smell, taste, and sound, with which the world appears to our senses. These so-called “secondary” qualities were interpreted as effects on our minds, as opposed to the geometrically describable so-called “primary” qualities like shape, size, and motion, which are features of the physical world as it is in itself, independent of our minds.
The question was: How complete an account of the nature of reality could the new physical science in principle provide? Do our minds necessarily escape its reach, even if our bodies are part of the physical world? Hobbes gave the most radically materialist answer to this question, holding not only that we, with all our thoughts and perceptions, are nothing but matter in motion, but that even God is a physical being. A scientifically updated version of this view—with mechanics replaced by quantum theory, molecular biology, and neuroscience, and God eliminated from the picture—is the dominant form of contemporary naturalism. It holds that physics can aspire to be the theory of everything. . .
Note the sentence “Although knowledge of those laws is based on observation and experiment, the reality they describe is not directly available to human perception, but can be known only by theoretical inference.” Isn’t that actually saying that the reality being described is known only through memes?