Sunday, January 30, 2011

Improving Political Debates

I found myself judging a high school debate competition yesterday, always a fun experience.  One timely subject chosen for one of the impromptu debates was "Americans should support incivility in political discussion," a topic a lot of people have been thinking about, and which I have also written about recently.   It might seem difficult to come up with many good reasons for supporting rude behavior and hate speech, in light of recent violent events in this country. On the other hand, watching events in Egypt this week might give some support to the idea that there is an important place for raucous, uncivil, marching in the streets kinds of protest.

The teams I judged took a slightly different approach.  The prop side advocated stricter controls on violent actions, and new laws against inciting violence against members of Congress, thus, they argued, providing more safety for plain old uncivil speech that does not incite violence.  The opp side wanted to ban all kinds of uncivil speech, such as political attack ads, thus biting off a lot more than they needed to chew.  I was amazed to see just how quickly both teams were ready to address this problem by proposing new laws outlawing something we don't like.  This is especially troubling when I saw how readily these kids cut back First Amendment freedoms, one of the cornerstones of our whole political system.

The students' solutions echo proposals we see advanced every day in Congress to remedy one problem or another, by simply banning it.  The right is unhappy about the health care reform act and liberal abortion laws.  So they are pushing through Congress even more draconian provisions forbidding insurance companies from covering abortions.  They are not coming up with alternative ways to provide better health care for more people.  They are not making much effort to prevent unwanted pregnancies or care for abandoned babies.  The left is unhappy about liberal gun laws.  So they are talking about bans on ammunition clips or automatic weapons, or stricter regulation of gun sales.  They are not making much effort to provide training in gun safety for all of the millions of gun owners out there.

A lot of problems can be addressed without jumping to the conclusion that we have to outlaw whatever it is we don't like.  Incivility in political discussion is only one of them.  It would be a nice change to see people think first about positive changes we could make to deal with whatever social problem is irking them, rather than immediately jump to the conclusion that whenever we see something going on that we don't like, we have to make it illegal.

(Still from the film Rocket Science)


  1. There may be some value in noticing how so many people recently have emotionally discussed the need for civility in politics (myself included) only to be inspired by the overthrow of a government elsewhere.

  2. That's why it was a good debate topic!

  3. You are so right about that! The experience must have been a wonderful. The young adults were lucky to have you there. Those students defended their views (or the ones they were assigned) and then dissected the other side. Mentors rule. Well done.

    The situation in Egypt is a good reminder to me that each of us risks being emotionally and ideologically tied to believing what we see as supporting our belief system (or self interest). We don't even have to be right to do that. Exposure to western society via the twitter and facebook reshapes the world. Not Dems or Repubs -- freedom

  4. On a side note:

    << The right is unhappy about the health care reform act and liberal abortion laws. So they are pushing through Congress even more draconian provisions forbidding insurance companies from covering abortions. >>

    I am not sure it's not fair to say the "right" is against the heath care reform act. Doing that lumps voters as if those who are opposed and unhappy with the bill are the misinformed and part of the right.

    The far right is opposed to and may want to repeal the health care reform act -- and are opposed to abortion. Others, center right are opposed to some of the reforms in the bill and want to improve it. Still others want major reform to the bill and are pro choice -- even while being personally opposed to abortion.

    The latter are the ones who may vote Dems out This is an extremely important distinction that should not be glossed over in an attempt to defend liberalism and undermine the far right. Most of us don't agree with the far right or far left. We take it personally when others -- from either side -- tell us what we believe visa vi what we support or oppose.

  5. I understand that there is opposition to various parts of the health care act from all across the spectrum. I was just giving an example of one group that is channeling their opposition into efforts to ban abortions, instead of potentially more constructive activities that might serve a "pro-life" purpose.

  6. Since when is it the "job" of politicians to prevent unwanted pregnancies?

  7. You guys are missing my point. Maybe I am choosing bad examples, but all I'm talking about is the tendency of people of all different views to ban things instead of solving problems.

    But apart from that I really don't understand your comment Harrison. Why wouldn't politicians be concerned about unwanted pregnancies, as much as any other public problem, whether disease or clean water or crime or transportation or whatever? Don't you think schools should discourage high school kids from getting pregnant for example? And if so, then it is part of politicians' jobs to think about problems like that. I mean you might as well ask, since when is it the job of politicians to make sure the fire department has the equipment to put out fires. Because there once was a time when cities did not have fire departments and it was not considered their responsibility to deal with problems like that. Now we know better, and, like fires, we also know that unwanted pregnancies cause problems for all of us.

  8. << You guys are missing my point >>

    Feel free to link Harrison and I in our love of the VW Bus and the fact that I covet his. As far as his views on abortion -- I know nothing. As well, I have not shared mine and will not.

  9. Who was talking about anybody's views on abortion? I think Harrison was talking about his views on the limited sphere of government, and you were talking about how it is not just the right that has problems with the health care act, and I was talking about how everybody is too quick to ban anything they don't like, which I why I said both of you were missing my point. How frustrating when we are having this much trouble understanding one another!

  10. We can agree on VW Buses. You wrote:

    "They are not making much effort to prevent unwanted pregnancies or care for abandoned babies."

    There have been numerous abstinence programs over the years, with little result. If someone doesn't know how one gets pregnant than there's not much hope for them.

    As to your point on banning things I can agree with you.

  11. << How frustrating when we are having this much trouble understanding one another! >>

    I am assuming this is not a rhetorical question, so I'll try to answer what I think is the crucible to discussionin as this is something I continue to struggle with personally:

    I have found it's best to discuss issues on merit and avoid pointing fingers or labeling others. A label (say right or left // fat or skinny) is ambiguous and is bound to close the minds of a large percentage of those whose opinions we hope to alter.

    When my message is misunderstood by those I discuss hot topics with, I try to understand how I may have raised emotional resistance in my target audience. I run the risk of what I feel is a valuable message being lost. When I want to change the minds of my patients' eating habits I don't openly label them or attack their nutrition. I try to help them understand my views. Politics, religion, nutrition and abortion, fall under similar categories. It's easy to preach to the choir; much more difficult to change minds.