The Issue:Talking Politics

This is an argument against argument. The point is that there is no point. Here we go.

In a Calvin and Hobbes Sunday comic strip from October of 1994, Calvin makes an astute observation as he walks through the woods with his tiger pal, Hobbes: “Talk show hosts, political candidates, news programs, special interest groups… They all become successful by reducing debates to the level of shouted rage. Nothing gets solved, but we’re all entertained.”

This is the problem. If what we see on the news networks and even in the presidential debates is a model for how we should discuss politics, then we are in for trouble. Character attacks, hedging around certain issues, backing arguments with readily available “statistics” and “facts” – these tactics are not going to help us resolve anything.

But there is an even deeper problem at work here. The other day, I had a conversation about the election with my sister. She is voting for Romney, while I am voting for Obama. We were plenty civil in our conversation, but it was hard for me to get a grip on what we were really even talking about. I am voting for Obama for reasons that are subject to my understanding of how the world works, what I think is important, and how I think Obama’s plan fits into that vision as opposed to Romney’s. The problem is that I could be wrong on points #1, #2, or #3. And how are we even supposed to talk about point #3, if we are not at the same place on points #1 and #2?

I want to beef up my argument a little bit, so I’m going to bring philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and his book “After Virtue” into this real quick. The problem with argument in the post-modern world we live in, MacIntyre says, is not so much that we disagree on conclusions as that we disagree on premises. If I believe that equal opportunity is what is most important, then how am I going to have a conversation about universal health care with someone who holds personal freedom as their highest value? Either we’ll shout about how the other is a socialist or a heartless miser, as per Calvin’s critique, or we’ll just talk past each other, as my sister and I did.

How do we get to the bottom of these ideological differences? I can’t think of any way that I would know the answer to that. Everyone’s reasons for supporting a candidate are probably just as arbitrarily valid as yours. I don’t see how arguing is going to change that.

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