Democrats & Liberals Archives

Debunking Linearity

I like WatchBlog because it fosters discourse over invective, and reason over sound bites. Its three column format is also inclusive, openly inviting multiple perspectives. But the geometry of the three columns unfortunately and unintentionally reinforces a linear notion about political thought which I believe to be a major source of political paralysis in our times.

Anyone who has read the "middle" column here, should understand that its position between the other two should not be interpreted as meaning its opinions are centrist or between the other two. In fact it is exactly the place for alternate perspectives, not watered down compromises. But I'm sure many a casual passer-by has incorrectly assumed linearity in the ideologies represented by the three columns.

In one of my earliest articles here, I wrote of the fallacy of trying to evaluate issues and policy based on a linear notion of political ideology from left to right or right to left. I come back to it, because I see that fallacy at the heart of so much misunderstanding and rancor. In spite of common ground in the motives of decent people on both sides of the political gulf, we face paralysis in bridging the gap even in cases where there are solutions which should appeal to both sides. It is easy to see how both sides get trapped in this linear wrong thinking, because in spite of being one to harp about it, I get trapped there myself more often than I'd like to admit. The whole language of left and right is a powerful reinforcer of this faulty notion.

Here's an example of how self-identified liberals, like myself, often err in today's America:

I look at my President and his policies, and what he says and does are just outrageous! It offends me that he is acceptable to so many people! I also know that I am moderate in my views [and here they think of the ways that they are obviously moderate - whatever that might happen to be], so if I'm moderate, this administration and Congress are clearly way out of the mainstream and must be far right wingers, and anyone who supports them or is farther to the right must also have an unworthy, outrageous, and extreme ideology.
And here is a comparable example of how self-identified conservatives get it wrong:
I see the people on the left getting all riled up and angry about my President. But I listen to him speak, and though he sometimes stumbles over his words, he often takes positions that seem very moderate to me. In fact many times I don't think Bush is conservative enough. Those lefties talk about us like we are all awful, greedy, filthy rich pigs. But I know that I'm a decent caring person who volunteers to help out others, so those people who hate me must either be extreme left wingers or else fooled by their leaders.
Now I can hear some of my liberal friends objecting, saying "but they really ARE way far to the right", and they can bring up plenty of examples that I would agree are not at all moderate. Folks who think of themselves as conservative would no doubt bring up their particulars to argue the opposite.

But my point stands.

In each of the forgoing passages there is a leap with faulty logic, which is due specifically to the framing of all politics in a linear fashion. I agree with the stipulation that Bush's policies are outrageous, and in my view immoral, and in many instances I find them unacceptably extreme, but what makes them outrageous is not their mythic position along some linear continuum, but the extent to which they cause hurt or worse to real human beings, damage our democracy, lower our credibility, ignore established science, and extend the divide between rich and poor. My argument has always been that it is not how far right Bush is, but how far wrong he is.

The dialogue about national policy needs many voices at the table. The human community thrives on diversity of skills and abilities, and to succeed in building our relational systems, no less do we need a diversity of perspectives.

The conservative errs in equating outrage to extremism, as the liberal errs in equating acceptance to extremism. Perhaps we all err in seeing extremism as the enemy. Meanness is the enemy. Sometimes extreme perspectives, even those we adamantly disagree with, can help sharpen our focus and bring clearer relief to the picture. It is when extremism is accompanied by disregard for our fellow humans on this planet that it becomes unacceptable and condemnable. In fact, such disregard can occur without extremism. As imperfect humans we all are guilty of it at some time.

Maybe I'm wrong to so condemn this administration. But I am quite capable of listening to contrary perspectives without condemning all those who espouse them. I've recently discovered RedState.Org, and am quite impressed with their community - one which has a very different take on the current administration than I do. I read in their comments genuine concern about the state of our nation and a desire to be part of making it better. Quite unlike the tenor at Free Republic, which I will not grace with a link, they value discourse over sound bites, civility over rancor, and welcome interaction with liberal perspectives which are offered respectfully. Frankly, based on what I've seen so far, I'd say they do a better job than the similar but liberal DailyKos of keeping the level of discourse high, even though I'd still agree more frequently with opinions expressed at Kos.

There are liberals I know, who by most linear measures are less liberal than I am, who would dismiss RedState.Org with smug contempt. They've fallen for the linear trap. There are conservatives, who upon finding out that I am "more liberal than someone else who dismisses them with smug contempt", would dismiss me as not worth even talking to. They've fallen for the linear trap.

Perhaps I beat this concept into the ground, but I do so because I find that it is so difficult NOT to fall for the linear trap. Much hope resides in those who do not fall for this trap, and there are many who do not, and quite a few of them are United States Senators. Now maybe it's just practical politics, but look at Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch. One is reviled by the right the other reviled by the left. And yet on multiple occasions they have cosponsored legislation, once quite recently to reach a compromise on embryonic stem cell research. Maybe it's practical politics, but maybe they have forged a relationship and recognize the humanity in the other in spite of the invective most of their own supporters would have for the other. I don't know, but it is entirely possible, because it is not necessary to be smug and dismissive of someone who has a radically different world view than oneself.

I'm not so naive to be blind to the pressures of partisanship in reinforcing linear divisiveness, but if Hatch and Kennedy can forge agreements, certainly there is hope that citizens can recognize humanity across ideological differences and forge bonds which help to heal our wounds. But it takes some vision beyond the talking points your party gives you.

Posted by Walker Willingham at June 10, 2005 1:23 PM