Monday, December 29, 2014

Angry Words Don't Persuade

As a colleague observed, there has been no shortage of topics for rhetorical analysis since returning to school in late August. The second half of 2014 has offered a long list of potential topics, internationally, nationally, and locally. The two challenges for me have been the time to blog and the passion to delve into topics that offer little hope for persuasion or meaningful discussion.

I am convinced that we select our facts, as there are often just enough accurate facts to support some thin version of most events or general theories. You can select your facts, cherry picking a reality. We all do this, to some extent.

Our deep dislike and distrust of other viewpoints makes solving problems difficult. We resort to name calling, reveling in our distaste for views we oppose. We exist in not just two Americas, but in four or five or a dozen American realities, all slightly (or seriously) out of alignment.

Here's an interesting contrast. The Washington Post published an article on finding common ground to solve problems. If you focus on shared ideals and agreement, before debating an issue, the parties involved are more likely to compromise. In theory, this could help end some, not all, partisan gridlock in national politics. Core values would hold, but more overlap would be admitted in debate:
On the other hand, we have a Salon column examining neurology and partisan psychology that starts by calling some Republican lawmakers "clowns" — because the ad hominem is a great persuasive device. Starting a discussion with name calling, even if you have valid points to make, isn't going to win converts.
At least the Salon column ends with…
Once you're aware that the Dunning-Kruger effect is involved, it's anybody's guess, really, who is more incompetent than whom.
Yes, that's a good reason to call the opposition "clowns" in the headline, then.

I remember when Ronald Reagan was elected. There was more than a little vitriol from his opponents. When Bill Clinton was elected, the Republicans respond to what they viewed as mistreatment of Reagan (and some of his nominees) by going all-out after a Democratic president. The escalation of hateful rhetoric has continued, with each side describing the other in increasingly contemptuous terms. And each side is better at spotting the slights against them than admitting their own role in this spiral of hateful language.

"The other side is worse" doesn't excuse what's happening in our political discourse. But, it isn't going to change any time soon. It is depressing, and it is the historical norm.