25 Sep '16     home | previous

Reason and Political Debate

We are witnessing in this election year people on opposing sides believing that people on the other side are spouting utter nonsense and lies. Indeed, people have been working their minds with exaggerations, rumors, emotionally inspired false assumptions and distortions. There is often confusion between lies, confusion and rationalization.

Lately I haven't heard anyone quoting the New Testament's James 3:8:

But no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

Or the Proverbs:

Lying lips are an abomination to Jehovah...

Or one of the Ten Commandments:

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

All those eagerly denouncing Hillary seem certain their descriptions of her is accurate truth telling. I'm biased. Trump bothers me. But even I occasionally see people too eager to give Trump's words the worst possible interpretation. He was making a point about guns and protection, not suggesting that someone assassinate.

The problem is, our memories hold information as if it were like scattered dots on a blank slate. We made sense of this information by connecting these dots – sense in the form of mental pictures. Our collection of dots differs from person to person. Some of us have a dearth of dots and we connect those dots in a way that might hardly represent reality.

In connecting the dots we might ignore those dots dormant in our memory that are associated with unpleasantness. It's called rationalization. Humanity has demonstrated a great capacity for rationalization.

Each of us works with his own big picture of connected dots. When former House Majority Leader Tom Delay or the actor Jon Voight describe President Obama as a Marxist they are not necessarily lying. They are working with their own picture of what Marxism is – a picture different from what a Marxist might think Marxism is.

Lying and rationalization can be easily confused, which is not to say that we sometimes hear what could be interpreted as a definite lie.

And sometimes what we are witnessing is ignorance coupled with assumption. In Ohio, Cathy Miller, chair of the Trump campaign in Mahoning County, Ohio, told a Guardian newsman:

I don't think there was any racism until Obama got elected. We never had problems like this... Now with the people with the guns, and shooting up neighborhoods, and not being responsible citizens, that's big change, and I think that's the philosophy that Obama has perpetuated in America."

(This was too much for the Trump campaign, which is in a close race in Ohio. They replaced her, or she resigned her position, saying "my personal comments were inappropriate, and I apologize.")

Professionally Miller was a real estate agent. She has not been trained for accuracy as are those aspiring to be journalists. Students at respectable schools of journalism are leaned on to report factual specifics undistorted by one's own biases. Opinion journalists are encouraged to ignore rumor and myth, to build their opinions on evidence. Journalists have been blamed for the confusion and turmoil in the world of political opinion, but it is up to each of us to select our source of information. Fortunately we don't live where the truth is managed, like North Korea. We have many great reporters and journalist opinion writers. At least one of them, Fareed Zakaria, is a national treasure. Of course, some who call themselves journalists are incompetent, like Dr Monica Crowley at the Washington Times and a few at Fox. But we in the United States have some great journals: yes, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic Monthly, to name just three.

A journalist in the hotseat for the first debate tomorrow is Lester Holt. I haven't watched him enough to have an opinion of him except to say that Holt will do his best, and he'll be criticized, some of it perhaps able criticism and some from the political right that will probably be nonsense.

Of greatest significance during the debate will be Clinton and Trump describing what they think should be done while they are in office. Trump's followers and some others perhaps care more about what they want him to do rather than whether he is a straight arrow truth teller. We should not expect the debate to expose with clarity which side is on the side of virtue and which is on the side of wrong.

According to Politico,

The one-on-one format for an hour-and-a-half could make [Trump's] thin knowledge painfully obvious... [Clinton] has made her campaign almost entirely about how Trump is a monstrous madman... It's not as though he needs to mount a convincing, detailed defense of his tax or child care plan or anything else to invalidate Clinton's critique of him; he just needs to seem a reasonable person.

Seeing that Trump has a human side, and seeing him other than Satan or thoroughly deplorable, I hope he comports himself with dignity. No matter how well Hillary does, some will hang on to their dot connections that make an image of her as corrupt and a liar.

We shouldn't expect sweet harmony regarding politics, but too many of us still see people who disagree with us as evil – a carry over from the Middle Ages and later when divergence in belief was seen as inspired by Satan. There will be no resolution from the debate tomorrow night. A greater unity of thought might come a few decades or a century from now.

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Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.