Thursday, May 10, 2012

Thinking Makes Politics Less Painful

(From the May 10, 2012 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

A few months ago a neighbor mentioned to me that he wanted to have coffee to discuss why I am a member of a certain political party. It was an interesting request because it had implications that it was bizarre that I could actually be a member of such a party
The reality is that I am an independent, but I do lean one way.

But the question shows that people are given to stereotypes about political affiliations. These stereotypes are largely media driven. I suspect my neighbor couldn’t believe I could be a member of a particular party because he believed the stereotypical portrayal of that party as seen in the news media, particularly the television talk shows.

These stereotypes are attached to both the Democrat and Republican parties, and are extended to liberal and conservative ideologies. Those of you who actually have co-workers, friends, or neighbors with different political leanings know that some of the angry rhetorical imagery does not apply to the people with whom you actually speak. So why do so many Americans cackle at “conservatives” or laugh at “liberals”?

One reason is that we separate in our minds the familiar and concrete from the large scale and abstract. In other words, we see our neighbors differently than the nation at large. We actually can get to know people close to us as real people, and sense that they don’t fit the stereotype. But we can’t know everyone in the nation. For that we depend on the news media as our only frame of reference.

Since the media has become increasingly polarized—from left-leaning liberals on MSNBC to partisan pundits on FOX—people tend to gravitate to a perspective they already tend to agree with. Then people are not informed or encouraged to think critically and openly but through repetition of the same perspective are led to lock into a static way of thinking. This is known as “media cultivation.”

Keep in mind that it’s not all media that does this. There is still a lot of good journalism in print and over the air and online—even on MSNBC and FOX. It is the editorials and talk shows that drive perspective and form and maintain public opinion. People fall into this trap because of something called “cognitive pain”—the notion that it is difficult to think about complex issues and maybe change your mind. It is much easier to believe a simple stereotype.

Ironically, it is the fact that too many of us fall into this oversimplification trap that makes our politics so painful. I would hope that as the presidential campaigns ramp up this summer we would all maybe talk less, think more, and keep in mind some realities about politics.

One, most people and politicians are not evil and/or stupid. Be careful of believing the accusations of ulterior motives. Politicians and media hosts get caught up in negative campaigning and getting credit for a zinger of a sound bite. This often leads political discourse to descend into trivial nitpicking. We need to keep our feet on the ground and our heads clear of distraction.

Second, arguments aren’t always won on facts. Issues are complex, and facts can be selective. Sometimes the facts are not in dispute, but principle and values are what is at stake. Sometimes the values that drive a perspective make facts irrelevant.

Third, smart people disagree. It is neither polite nor intellectual to refer to someone who disagrees with you as an ’idiot.’  Many people’s opinions can be based on sound reasoning coupled with a deeply held worldview. It is not productive to fall into invective towards others when what is called for is a calm expression and justification for your point of view.

Fourth, politics, economics, foreign policy and other issues up for debate in the campaign are not science. They are dependent on human behavior, so there is great variance and not a simple cause-effect for everything. So we should not get carried away giving all the credit or blame to a single politician or policy for certain conditions or events.

Finally, we should avoid all-or-nothing and black-white characterizations of issues. In other words, on issues like taxes, the role of government, personal responsibility and so on, it is not either or but to what degree.

I still hope to have that coffee with my neighbor. He might not agree with my perspectives, but I hope he’ll understand them, and me. I’ll do the same with regard to him.

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