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[ How to Raise the Level of Political Discourse ]I’m writing this on the eve of the 2019 UK General Election. My partner and I have decided to go on a total news blackout before the polls close and to have an early night rather than stay up late anxiously watching results come in.
Democracy thrives on a citizenry that’s politically engaged
Regardless of the outcome of this election, I can guarantee that the news cycle for at least the next week will be a nonstop analysis of the results, political pundits, and “what does this mean for (pick any random issue you like)?” type of coverage.
Sadly, much of that “analysis” is going to be vapid, poor-quality sound-bites. I believe that a healthy democracy thrives on a citizenry that’s politically engaged and can think critically. To achieve that, we all need to learn how to identify poor quality political discussion and to raise the level of discourse. Here’s how to do it.
Check the facts
First off, make sure you check the facts. Please, I implore you, if there’s only one thing you take away from this article it should be to do your own fact-checking.
You don’t have to be an expert to check a lot of facts. Half the time, it’s just a case of reading the report that the news is discussing. Ask some basic questions, such as does it make the claims the person is claiming it does? Are the numbers being accurately reported? Look for cases where they’re cherry-picking the data by taking one piece of information out of context.
Confirm the claims
You can go one step further by utilizing high-quality, independent fact-checking sites. Full Fact in the UK is excellent. In the US you’re spoiled for choice with factcheck.org, Politifact, and more. In Canada, you have FactsCan. Meanwhile, Snopes covers a broad range of hoaxes and misinformation. Take a few minutes to use them to confirm the claims.
Don’t just read the headline
Another classic mistake is only reading the headline and not the article. These days, even mainstream newspapers will utilize sensationalized headlines to get you to read. Add clickbait sites into the mix, and it’s easy to get outraged about something that may not be the case.
Often, you’ll find that the article presents a more balanced report than the headline may have suggested. Or, you’ll discover the story is more nuanced than the initial impression.
Resist the temptation to share links or comment just based on the headline. Take the time to read the full story first. At the very least, if it’s something you agree with, then you can provide more context when sharing or commenting. If you disagree with the article, then you’re far more capable of attacking the points it made if you can speak to them directly.
Watch out for logical fallacies
Take the time to familiarise yourself with the common logical fallacies. You need to watch for this not just in your opponent’s reasoning, but also your own. Knowing how to identify flaws in somebody’s argument is an excellent way to find weaknesses in their points. Avoiding these same mistakes yourself makes your case harder to attack.
The Wikipedia page on logical fallacies can be a good starting point. I also found this page from the University of Idaho provided a detailed breakdown with several examples. I’ve noticed three are quite prevalent in political discussions.
Ad Hominem attacks
An ad hominem attack means you’re attacking the person, not their position. Think of Trump’s campaign against “crooked Hillary”. That’s a textbook example of an ad hominem attack.
It undermines the person
Sometimes the attack can be more subtle and passed off as a joke. The Sun newspaper in the UK has been quite fond of referring to Jeremy Corbyn as “magic grandpa”. That might seem innocent enough, but the aim is the same. It’s going after the person, not their position. Often, I find this more innocent style is even more insidious. It doesn’t immediately feel like an attack, but it undermines the person and serves to have them taken less seriously, especially when repeated.
A strawman argument is when somebody will deliberately attack a position their opponent isn’t making but is a flimsier argument. I used one such strawman argument as the jumping-off point for my article discussing lies about taxes.
The strawman argument can come in a lot of different shapes. Sometimes it’s an oversimplification of somebody’s position. Other times it will exaggerate their case to ridiculous levels (such as the 70% tax rate I discussed in my article). At its worst, it might be a completely fabricated claim that merely sounds like something the person would have proposed. Use your fact-checking skills to make sure any claims someone is making about their opponent’s position are accurate.
Begging the question
Begging the question is a form of circular reasoning. However, most basic types of circular reasoning are relatively easy to catch, while I find it can be more subtle.
Watch out for unsubstantiated claims
The most common circumstances where I see begging the question come up are when somebody makes a statement as if it were fact. It’s a misdirection that attempts to have you accept the claim at face value, without ever questioning it. You might as well be saying, “this is true because it’s true.” Framed that way, you can more easily see the circular reasoning. Watch out for unsubstantiated claims being passed off as facts.
Be aware of confirmation bias
Confirmation bias is far too common in political discussion. It’s an unconscious bias where you will overly focus on the things that agree with your beliefs while filtering out the things that disprove them.
Don’t allow lazy arguments on your side
I think it’s equally important to watch for other people’s confirmation bias and your own. Are you only calling out weak political writing when it’s something with which you disagree? Do you nod along to things you agree with without expecting the same level rigorous proof?
The point of this article is we need to raise the level of discourse, regardless of the position. Don’t allow lazy arguments on your side; call them out. Provide constructive feedback on how to make the case more strongly. Resist the temptation to point out the flaws only in your opponents’ reasoning.
Be willing to listen
I talked about the idea of listening and compassion in my article on fighting right-wing populism. We need to be prepared to listen and engage with people with whom we disagree.
I still firmly believe we can achieve more by being kind and patient than angry. I know it’s a challenge. It’s easy to read something and react based on your emotions. I’m as guilty of doing this at times like anybody else. I’m not perfect. I am trying, though.
As I said at the beginning of this article, I believe democracy thrives in an atmosphere of open discussion. We need to be politically engaged. We also need to expect a high-quality level of political debate. We cannot allow simple sound-bites and demagoguery to replace considered, well-reasoned discourse.