Saturday, May 19, 2007

XKCD character: "Political debates... show how good smart people are at rationalizing."

I'd like to comment on this recent cartoon from the webcomic xkcd.

Cartoon about politics from XKCD.

This cartoon was brought up on a science fiction message board that I read and participate in, at the end of a long conversation about politics. The conversation was about "tolerance," and I voiced my opinion that I'm very suspicious when people bring up the topic of "tolerance" as an abstract, because in my experience, people who are talking about tolerance in that context often want to coopt the language of civil rights in order to draw false equivalence between non-equivalent statements. "I support rights for gay people" and "gay people are immoral" are not equivalent statements.

While I like and respect the two people who posted this cartoon, the effect* of introducing the cartoon into the conversation is to minimize anyone who is passionate about politics by saying that their opinions are based not on clear thinking, or passion, or reaction to oppression, but on "rationalization."

There is a legitimate point being made in this cartoon, as any teacher well knows. Teaching in front of a classroom is a tricky business. It's difficult to be endowed with so much trust, and I appreciate that people struggle with that.

Outside of math, there are rarely objective and concrete facts that can be pointed to with absolute certainty, by anyone, from any place. 2 + 2 = 4 is not, or at least should not be, a controversial statement.

But the simple fact that someone can argue with me when I say "I support gay rights" is not an indication that I am simply "rationalizing" my position. To suggest it is so is to dismiss the concerns and oppression of gay people.

To say that caring about and debating politics is all about "smart people rationalizing" is the epitome of a priveleged statement. People who are fighting for their rights and survival do not have the privelege to say "oh, well, it all doesn't really matter" or "I guess this is just a difference of opinion."

In this country, black women have been sterilized for the color of their skin. I strongly doubt that my interlocutors in that discussion would have agreed that it was acceptable behavior. For me to argue against it -- for black women to argue against it -- would they call this an exercise in rationalization? I certainly hope not.

People suffer. Queer people suffer. Women suffer. Poor people suffer. People of color suffer. Our suffering is not a cheap political point, to be argued away by saying that our justifiable anger is merely an example of "smart people rationalizing."

But I don't really want to pick on the people who posted this cartoon. They're nice; they're smart; and I don't think either one of them intended to offend me. On a personal level, I'm not upset with them. But politically, I want to address the message behind that maneuver, and behind this cartoon, because it's larger than a single exchange in a debate.

Americans have a tendency to slump toward the middle. This tendency was described by Durkheim when he was talking about Democratic societies; it is the ultimate effect of democratic thinking. If the majority opinion is deemed 'right' by a political system, then it's not shocking that many people rush to agree with it, because they want to be right. I believe Durkheim described this phenomenon as the "tyrrany of the majority."

One effect of this is to create the Overton window, the window of acceptably moderate discourse. As I understand the theory, it works something like this:

Because people are not very good at being amateur pollsters, the Overton window isn't based on demographics (25% of people are more conservative, 25% are more liberal, so I'll position myself in between). Instead, it functions on concepts (25% of ideas are more conservative, 25% are more liberal, so I'll position myself in between). So when conservatives rattle around saying things like "ABORTION IS MURDER" they pull the Overton window to the right. When liberals insist on being "reasonable" in an attempt to "sway the middle" and they stick to a wishy-washy position like "of course abortion is bad, but...," then they allow the conservatives to continue shifting the window rightward, because the spectrum is between a radically conservative idea and a moderately liberal one. People say "well, I don't want to be as conservative as the radicals ("ABORTION IS MURDER") or as liberal as what I perceive as the liberals ("of course abortion is bad, but..."), so I'll go for a middle position (say: abortion should be legal in cases of rape and incest, but not for "frivolous reasons" [read: reasons I disagree with]).

If we buy into the theory, then if we wanted to actually pull people further in our direction, more liberals would say "abortion on demand, without apology," or more extreme positions -- which is why when Amanda of Pandagon wrote a post claiming that "abortion is a moral good," she titled it Time to Open up the Overton Window Some More. Ideally, if the spectrum of ideas that were constantly brought to the public consciousness was between "ABORTION IS MURDER" on the right, and "Abortion is a moral good" on the left, then the people who value moderation would end up at a middle position that looks more like what is currently leftist -- say, "Safe, legal, and rare."** Conservatives have been much more vocally radical in the Ameican public square than liberals, and this affects the way that Americans conceive politics (which we can see from the fact that American politics are radically conservative compared to the politics of other countries in the global north).

In American society, a moderate position implies rationality. It implies that the person who is taking the moderate position has heard both sides and is able to balance them. It implies balance, a lack of excess or extremity: this person is neither too much of one thing, nor the other.

Because the "tyrrany of the majority" is an embedded cultural assumption in America, all of us end up looking at the extremes of any argument not just for their actual substance as statements, but also as markers of the extreme ends of a continuum. They are the definition of extremity and excess; a position in the middle is the definition of moderation and reason. And it is from this perspective that people draw the false equivalency between extreme positions.

"Discrimination against gay people should not be illegal" and "gay rights are an incontrovertible part of human rights" are not equivalent statements if we look at the actual substance of them. One is inherently oppressive. The other is part of the fight against oppression. It seems ridiculous to look at active oppression, and the protest of oppression, as equivalent positions from this perspective.

They are only equivalent if we don't look at the substance of the positions themselves, but instead view them as the end points on the continuum of acceptable discourse. From this perspective, it's easy to draw equivalencies between oppression and protest. As end points, rather than arguments, both arguments are equidistant from the middle. If we're thinking about them this way, then we can go on to say things like: "both parties are being equally infractious" "both parties are equally extreme" "both parties are equally irrational."

Both parties are just "smart people rationalizing."

In order to see things this way, you have to stop looking at the substance of the arguments. You have to ignore what the arguments are actually saying, in order to look at them from the perspective of being points on an abstracted spectrum.

It's harder to employ this reasoning if you are actually being oppressed. It's hard to be denied marriage, or to be given unequal pay, to have people think you are stupid and dirty because of the color of your skin, to be less likely to be hired because you carry more excess food under your skin, to be likely to be sexually assaulted or murdered if someone notices that your genitals aren't what they expect -- it's hard to experience these things, and hear people make statements in support of oppression, and believe that the two statements are equal.

To my knowledge, the people who posted the cartoon support gay rights, feminism, and anti-racism. They seem to position themselves as liberal. But the message I get from the cartoon is that they are still willing to abstract the political debate away from what it actually signifies into some kind of game where the two opposed parties are just rationalizing from opposite sides of the spectrum -- as if the political ideas that one side is expressing don't have the ability to actually hurt real people. Debate is not just a ping pong match of rationalization from two sides that are academically opposed. There are lives at stake.

Now, the debate in question only glancingly dealt with actual issues of oppression -- although it did deal with those issues. But the insidiousness of the idea that political debate is just sophisticated rationalization rather than an act of passion, reason, and activism stems from the same power dynamics that are at play when oppression is on the table.

The concept implies that to voice any strong political feeling is incivil and distasteful. It is, after all, extreme rather than moderate. To debate politically is to refuse to be part of the moderate middle.

I like these people, but it may be harder to debate with them again. Based on the cartoon, I'm afraid that when I speak to them, what they're hearing is "blah, blah, blah, rationalization," and not, "Do not oppress my sisters and brothers. Do not oppress me. Do not commandeer my body to your purposes. Do not make laws to regulate my life based on religious assumptions that I do not share. Pay me equally. Treat me equally. Respect me equally. Acknowledge me as human."***

I understand that the people who posted the cartoon are my political allies, and that they support my rights and other people's rights. But the message I get from their cartoon -- whether it was the message they intended to send or not -- is that they are willing to reduce my striving to rationalization.


*Please note that I am discussing effect and not intent. I don't know what the intent of the people who posted the cartoon was. However, since it does contain the insinuation that political debates are just the rationalization of smart people, I think it is perfectly within stride for me (and any other passionate poster who was on the thread) to interpret the posting of the cartoon in the way that I have.

**It's not necessary to be cynical about doing this. Plenty of people do believe radical leftist positions. I support Amanda's idea that "abortion is a moral good." The point is to stop censoring ourselves in an attempt to win over the mushy middle, because we end up shooting ourselves in the foot.

***I don't mean to imply that the people I'm actually speaking with don't acknowledge me as human, or support various rights for various groups. Those are comments that I address toward the American public in general.

Final note, to the people who posted the cartoon: I know you're going to read this, and I want to publicly repeat that I like you and that I don't mean this as an attack. I am not posting this because I hate you, or am angry with you, or want to erase your opinions. I am posting this because I want to express my reactions not only to what you said, but to something that happens in American political discourse in general. I hope that you will try to hear what I am saying, and I hope that you will both bear in mind that I do respect you very much.


Timmi Duchamp said...

Over the last couple of decades, the US Left’s need for the “Overton Window” has become pressing. It’s instructive to compare some of Richard Nixon’s policies, say, with those of Bill Clinton, since Nixon’s positions on many issues can often be found to have been to Clinton’s left.

While in professional politics I often think that positioning oneself as a “moderate” is simply a sign of timidity, in political behavior generally (as seen in any organizational meeting, for instance), the “middle” position has also come to be seen as the embodiment of civility, so that those who speak too far off the middle of the positions discussed (no matter how far right and therefore extreme the middle might actually be) are perceived as intolerant and uncivil. In my view, this is a social psychological formation that is plaguing the Left, since leftists these days are almost never fanatical zealots. And I’m certain that it’s done a lot of harm to feminist practice, too.

The news media, of course, are at least partly responsible. They invented the notion of presenting “two sides” to every issue—and then deliberately excluded positions on the left from consideration by claiming that the “two sides” were the most extreme right-wing position they could find on the one hand and a center-right position on the other. Non-representation of the Left inevitably resulted, all the while the media trumpeted its “fairness” and “objectivity” in presenting “both sides” of whatever issue was under discussion.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I'm short on time this morning, but my mind insists that I must join this conversation, so I'm going to throw out a few thoughts.
First, I think almost everybody in the U.S. -- except those actively involved in politics -- likes to present themselves as too good for politics. I see that in the cartoon as well. The issues are complicated; political debates are often simplistic. Only people good at rationalization will engage in politics.
But politics is just coming together as a group to work things out. It's very messy, because there are so many interests and points of view that have to be resolved. And it gets simplistic in part because very few people have the time and energy to take a thoughtful and considered position on every important issue of the day.
We don't really have the luxury of opting out -- especially here in the U.S. where the policies that get made not only affect us, but much of the rest of the world.
The discussion of the Overton window is fascinating. Right now, popular perception has labeled Hillary Clinton as a liberal -- and sometimes even farther left than that! Given that she is -- at best -- a moderate Democrat, that means the concept of the middle has moved markedly to the right. And one reason some of Bill Clinton's domestic policies were more conservative than some of Nixon's -- as Timmi points out -- was that Nixon was reacting to the substantial changes brought about by Lyndon Johnson, whereas Clinton was reacting to the Reagan years. (Ah, what a president Lyndon would have made if it hadn't been for that damn war!)
If Hillary is the left wing, then G.W. Bush as he was presented to us in 2000 did look like the moderate.
On the abortion discussion in particular: Have you all noticed that almost everyone refers to the anti-abortion groups as "pro-life" -- including people who support abortion rights. I've even heard the term from speakers for Planned Parenthood and NARAL, I think. Those words alone make their position sound reasonable, and by using them, we cede them the center. We should insist that the term "anti-abortion" -- and, in some cases, anti-birth control, be used to describe them. To do that, we may need to define ourselves as pro-abortion -- and that could reasonably move the center back to pro-choice, which is probably the opinion held by the majority of people in this country.

Rachel Swirsky said...

Thank you both for your comments.

Civility is such an interesting, complex, crazy topic. I had no real understanding of how complex it was until recently. I didn't understand how it is used as a hammer to silence people whose opinions or bodies don't match the mainstream; however they express their opinions, they are branded as uncivil. Chilling.

I agree that anti-abortion is a better label for forced birth advocates than pro-life is. I make an effort to use it, but I still slip sometimes. :(