I was fairly baffled the first time I heard the adage “Don’t discuss religion and politics.” How does anyone imagine that a democracy could work if one doesn’t discuss politics? That was before I became aware of the spectacular shit show that is US political discourse, and the fact that it’s plainly dysfunctional. One of my more enlightened friends made me aware of The Story of Us about a year ago. I’ve held off on posting it here in anticipation of the final installment, but since that doesn’t seem to be coming (I suspect for good reasons), here it is:
This blog series is by far the best take I’ve seen on the US political landscape, or at least the easiest to digest while staying reasonably comprehensive. It doesn’t really pick up steam until the last few installments, and I’d almost counsel people somewhat versed in social theory to skip the first two chapters, but Tim spends the space not just defining base concepts, but also establishing a new nomenclature which must be understood to appreciate the rest.
My only real issue with the series is that he takes a rather simplistic view of morality, treating it as a single axis where good and bad are distinct qualities, rather than matters of perspective. Tim is in Philosophical Disney World, to use his own terminology.
I come at this from a rare if not unique angle, in that my political views are so far out (of the Overton window) that I’ve literally never met anyone who shares them. I’ve long since had to learn to get along with people who disagree with me, and to accept that any political discussion will happen in their frame of reference. I even go out of my way to consume content that I disagree with, possibly because of some kind of rage addiction, certainly because I believe that I must thoroughly understand my enemy in order to defeat him. BTW, this principle is fun to apply in a wider sense; If you’re bothered by a shipmate missionarizing too hard, try cutting him down by paraphrasing the good book, and watch his face as he realizes that he’s locked in there with you…
Thus, while I understand echo chambers on an intellectual level, I don’t get how people just walk in there and stay by the million. OK, I might be virtue signaling a bit harder than usual, but I’m also genuinely curious: How does the mental process go? WBW does a brilliant job of describing how they suck you in, but full-on circle jerks get real clammy real quick. I’m no stranger to the concept:
“Wow, diesel hydraulic drive systems are extremely cool!”
“Indeed they are! I wouldn’t think of installing anything less cool on my equipment!”
“You are right, that’s the only valid choice!”
“You seem to understand the subject better than anyone else!”
“You have impeccable taste!”
“Oh my, what an enormous virtue! Can I touch it?”
(This is the point when I usually wish someone would blunder in, extolling the virtues of electric power distribution, if only so we could gang up on him)
…and yet, people are seemingly content to sit back and smash that endorphin button over and over until they descend into a torpor devoid of counterpoint. Again, WBW does a brilliant job of explaining why this is an intuitive behavior, but something still seems off. Don’t all addicts wish they were clean once in a while? In this case all you have to do for a sniff at sobriety is to click onto a news source you dislike…
Another thing my life as a political outsider has taught me is that education is no cure for this. In fact, the people who are the most likely to resort to name calling and literally clawing at my face while held back by friends and relatives, are the ones with a high level education in social science. This is confirmed by The Story of Us, with references to studies indicating that people with a high level of education exhibit lower intellectual mobility, thus ending up more vulnerable to bigotry.
So what would it take to fix this? We’d all have to stay skeptical (in the classical sense), most of all towards ourselves. We’d also have to respect not just each other, but the discussion itself. Looking how far away we are from those ideals, and which way things are moving, it’s hard to imagine a small set of effective measures to attain them. I’m afraid Tim Urban has bitten off more than he can chew on this one, hence why the series hasn’t been updated for a year.
I’m afraid I can only conclude that you’re right: Don’t discuss politics, especially not the bipartisan variety (whatever that may be), not the way it goes now. However, please do embrace the meta discussion: How we got to this point, and the imperfections of our own psyche that reinforces the problem. Increased self awareness across the board is the only way up and out of this seemingly munted shit show.