Wednesday, August 19, 2009

getting it wrong to prove you're right

Here's why, no matter how much I agree with Frank's outrage, his reaction was the wrong one.

She's still "crazy," and even more convinced that 1) she's justified in her "crazy" and 2) she was not given a fair hearing by Frank (and by extension, Obama and his administration).

That Hitler-mustachioed Obama poster is more important to her than ever. She's more entrenched in her opinions than ever. She's more convinced that the gov't is fundamentally untrustworthy and indifferent to her opinion than ever. She's more afraid of her perceived encroaching disempowerment and marginalization than ever. So she, and everyone else who fits this description, will be shouting louder, about Nazis and death panels and abortion mandates and whatever, than ever.

It's just more dialectically and epistemologically complicated than people in favor of health care reform want to admit. Olbermann wants to ask "why are people believing these lies?" without delving into the fact that this is the wrong question, or at the very least, the wrong way to ask this question. It's an alienating question, and perceived alienation is precisely the problem! Why don't you just dump some lighter fluid on the conflagration of crazy, then, and act all outraged when what you get back is an out-of-control wildfire.

Rachel Maddow did a better job last night on this, putting together the fact that these wildly divergent perceptions on health care are demonstrably linked to which information sources are trusted. But all the way through the segment, it's "off-the-kook-end theories" and "it's wrong, it's just not true, they exist in their own mini-verse." And then, it's Bill Maher who's invited to comment on this phenomenon, who of course is not at all provocative, and is totally nuanced. (snort.)


Can we please, please, please stop giving people excuses--no, rational justifications--for remaining in their epistemic mini-universe? Don't we want them to come out of the mini-verse? Why should they, when at every opportunity, we mock them and call them crazy and insult their FoxNews and their trusted pundits? When we say to them, "what planet do you spend most of your time on?"

I'm not saying we shouldn't be challenging these demonstrable falsehoods. Of course that needs to happen. But it flat-out doesn't matter if that's the first and only thing that happens. It doesn't matter if someone you don't trust anyway tells you that the people you do trust are lying. It doesn't matter if someone you don't trust tells you your firm beliefs and perceptions are false and distorted. It doesn't matter. It gets tuned out. And when the frustration mounts and the people you don't trust call you crazy, well, that just goes to show that you shouldn't be trusting them anyhow.

So next time, when someone like Frank confronts someone like that woman in the video, and says, "I'm going to answer your question with a question," please, please let it be this question:

"What do YOU want out of health care reform? Because I'd like to know."


Unknown said...

Hi Jen! We exchanged emails a few times back and forth after your perceptive (and quite humorous) post about the GOP convention. I saw this post and wanted to add some local flavor.

First of all, AAARRRGGGHH! I join you in exasperation about the way this debate has taken place. I hope every day for a "restart" button.

I live in Mass and have been to one of the town halls that seem to be drawing so much attention. I'm in agreement with you about the need for genuine dialogue between groups that disagree. I wonder, however, if folks (outside of Northeast) know who is behind the Obama-as-Hitler rhetoric and images? I ask, because my husband, who came with me to the town hall, is from the South, grew up in Churches of Christ, and has never heard of the group. They are known as LaRouchians, and you can find out more about them online. They have been around for quite awhile, and have a history of existing to disrupt the administration/policies du jour. I first learned of them in college, where they frequent campuses - at least in the Northeast. They typically draw young college students, and generally are most interested in trumping any debate, no matter what it is.

At the recent town hall meeting, I tried to engage in the type of dialogue you describe with them, and it went nowhere. Most seem trained to not have a rational debate, but resort to personal attacks, non-sequiturs, and generally spout really non-sensical things. A typical tactic is to shout down others, be as radical as possible bu invoking historical figures like Hitler, or sing loud Gregonian-style chants to drown out speakers. In Barney Frank's defense, there is a lot more to this story than was shown on CNN. For those at the rally who had true policy questions around areas of the bill being debated, he tried to address them as clearly as he could (which was shown on the local media here), and when these folks tried to shout over him, he respectfully said "I am trying to answer your question..." "Please let me speak." Some did, some didn't.

I am 100% in agreement about the need for a new form of dialogue, and can see why the Rachel Maddow characterizations might help to further the divide over this issue, but I think it's important to distinguish between those who are watching FOX, and actually want to discuss policy, and those, like the LaRouche supporters, who have a history of trying to gain attention by using propaganda and manipulation. I believe Rep. Frank's knowledge of the history of this group propelled his response, and I am peeved that CNN chose to give this group (a very small minority by any stretch) the media spotlight versus some of the other, much more legitimate, and in some cases, equally virulent, town hall-goers who actually had questions that could be addressed in the way you're seeking.

I'd be curious to hear from your other readers: are others aware of the LaRouchians? Have you heard of them before, and are you aware of their particular history and polemical tactics? They generally use whatever is going on at the moment in politics to get attention, but until my husband suggested it, I hadn't realized that some might not know who they are.

JJT said...

no, I've never heard of them. I'll google it though. My interpretation of the scene has been that the woman, whoever she was, represented a contingent of people who genuinely believe this inflammatory rhetoric, etc., and who show up to the meetings in order to put their viewpoint on the table. That's an assumption, of course, and--as hermit Greg's been pointing out to me all day--a really optimistic one.

J. Brent Bates said...

JJT said...

I found this interesting too:

So, the chick at Frank's town hall def is a Larouchie.

And that's an important distinction. Because what I've been trying to argue is that everyone has to operate with an initial presumption of "good faith" on the part of the other with whom you disagree. But I think the LaRouchians don't meet that criterion.

There are others for whom that's true too--I think the article linked above is right to scorn Beck and Limbaugh.

But I still think that there are plenty of people out there who see themselves as operating in good faith but are presuming the other side is operating in bad faith. That problem isn't as intractable as it seems, but it does mean that before discussion on any given topic can happen, a sort of proof-of-good-faith step has to occur. That's where I think we're screwing up for the average conservative person, like the folks I grew up with, who listen to FoxNews and whatever but aren't gun-toting nutjobs.

JJT said...

but: the gun-toters should leave their guns at home.

Little Light said...

I'm from Virginia and thus familiar with LaRouche. I was actually relieved when I heard some of the town hall shoutdowns came from his group only because I know they've been spouting a lot of nonsense for a long time and usually aren't taken seriously enough to get soundbites. It's the ones who are perceived to be righteously angry who I worry about.