“You’re just a crazy conservative who hates poor people and thinks you’re better than everyone,” said the caller.
“Get off my phone, you big dope,” said the radio commentator who shall remain nameless.
Sound familiar? Well, it’s campaign season. Get used to it.
Whether it’s the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, or the local ballot issue, one thing is for sure: you’re about to get slammed with political ads. Oops, too late! I’ve already had enough to last a lifetime (hey, at least we found something we can all agree on).
Why are political ads so annoying? Most people reply with the answer that they are dirty, unfair, manipulative, and untrustworthy. And for the most part, those answers are probably pretty accurate. But I have another reason: it seems like they never actually advance an argument (“never” might be an exaggeration, but it’s close). Instead, they make assertion after assertion after assertion—and apparently I’m supposed to be convinced by whoever can most effectively scare me about the opponent while simultaneously endearing me to his or her own cause. And this is of course accomplished with brooding, dissonant music and blurred, untimely-taken black-and-white photographs when portraying the bad guy—and, by predictable contrast, happy, resolute music with brightly colored photographs when portraying the good guy.
It’s a lost art really—making an argument, that is. We’ve settled, it seems, for cheap tricks and shouting matches. But what else can we rightly expect when our idea of making an argument plays out like the example above. We can blame the politicians, and sure, they should be held accountable for their actions. But we are every bit as much a part of the problem. It is only when we can restate the opponent’s position and have that person reply, “Yes, that is exactly my position,” that we are really ready to have an honest debate.
We’re certainly not going to change the climate in politics overnight, but we can do something about it. For starters, we can be on guard—learn to recognize the difference between fair arguments and assertions, especially when espoused by people on our “side.” When there are more of us who prove, by virtue of our own ideological clarity, that we will only be persuaded by sound arguments and not manipulative assertions, politicians will be forced to deliver the real substance. But perhaps most importantly, we need to practice it ourselves. And for many, that will be like learning a new language, which is no easy task. So for starters, I have a simple recommendation: take advantage of this political season by putting to use your argument/assertion radar. You’ll probably find it pretty easy to apply this to the “other” side on any given issue. The real challenge (and skill) is applying it to your side just as liberally.