Opinions, Opinions … And Politics

23 Feb

As I keep telling my brother … if you shoot the messenger, all you get is less mail.

-Death of the Endless, Lucifer.

One of the few teachers I actually liked at school was fond of debate. He thought, in all honesty, that debate was key to truly understanding something. His idea of a mental exercise for our young minds was to put us in a position where we had to argue for or against something, regardless of our feelings on the matter. He was very good at guessing where we would stand and forcing us to argue the other side.

He taught empathy in a manner that actually stuck (unlike pointless appeals to better nature or idealism). He expected us to actually uphold ‘our’ side of the debate and marked us down when we tried to lose (because we didn’t want to ‘win.’) We came to understand that a person and their arguments were not always the same thing. Someone could and did argue for (or against) something that they found horrific, without actually compromising themselves. It was, in many ways, a useful education – a person who disagrees with you, or appears to disagree with you, isn’t always a villain.

It was, in some ways, excellent training for writing. I try to understand how the other side thinks – I try to explain their reasoning – without actually condemning them as either Ron the Death Eaters or Draco in Leather Pants. I try to understand where they are coming from without actually making excuses for them. A man like Karl Holliston of Storm Front, a committed Nazi in the truest possible sense, didn’t decide to be evil one day. He’s the product of a chain of events that, in no way, excuses the crimes he committed in the hopes of preserving the Reich.

In hindsight, the thing that struck me as genuinely brilliant was how skilfully he moderated the debates. We were not allowed to insult the other side; we were not allowed to shout and rage and generally act like assholes. We each had a set period of time in which to speak, then a chance to ask questions. We were expected to put arguments together, which would then be deconstructed and either destroyed or made stronger. I’m sure he had opinions of his own – I’m sure he did – but he never showed favouritism. We were graded on how well we argued our case.

This did not, of course, provide good training for debates on the internet.


I had the impression, as I moved onto the internet, that debates online were very similar to the ones I’d had at school. Yes, I was naive. I came to respect a couple of internet moderators – one of whom was quite well accomplished in the field we shared – and it took me some time to realise that they not only weren’t on my side (which wasn’t something they had to be), but they weren’t interested in actually serving as neutral arbiters.

What I hadn’t realised, at first, was just how badly the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour frayed on the internet. Internet trolls struck from the shadows, with moderators turning a blind eye (as long as the trolls were on the same side.) The rules were only enforced against people the moderators didn’t like or didn’t agree with, seemingly devised to turn the internet forums into echo chambers.

I had thought in terms of point, counterpoint and counter-counterpoint. They thought in terms of crushing the enemy. I had thought that debate was to be focused on the issue at hand. They thought that personal attacks were perfectly acceptable ways of winning an argument. I thought that patiently dismantling arguments was enough to point out that the argument was wrong. They thought that screaming, shouting and wild accusations (including blatant lies, misrepresentations, etc) was key.

Like most sensible people, I do not consider my opinions to be unchangeable. If someone comes to me with a logical argument that disproves something I had believed, I change my opinions. And the reason I do this is simple – if I am wrong, then there is nothing to be gained from continuing to uphold a wrong opinion. But, by contrast, if someone comes to me and insists – without putting forward any evidence – that I believe something because I am a horrible person, I’m just going to ignore him.

If you can’t put forward a coherent argument that proves someone wrong … are they wrong?

If this had stayed on the internet, it might not be a problem. But this attitude – the cultish belief that anyone who disagrees has to be driven out – is spreading into the real world.

I’ve seen too much of this over the last few months. People are being given grief – online and offline – for daring to try to understand the other side, often without actually supporting the other side. People have been unfriended, frozen out, even fired … just for daring to express the wrong opinion. Maybe the stories are exaggerated … it doesn’t matter. People tend to remember bad experiences – and things that make them feel bad – more than they remember good things. People who feel they are under attack either knuckle under, which makes them hate themselves and their oppressors, or clench their fists and start fighting back.

Everyone has the right to express an opinion. That’s freedom of speech. But they don’t have the right to have that opinion treated as revealed truth. If you want someone to take your opinions seriously, you have to convince them that your opinions deserve to be taken seriously. Sometimes, that’s a matter of having both qualifications and experience. At other times, it’s just a case of putting together a coherent and convincing argument.

And if I write an Op-Ed, you have the right to tell me I’m wrong.

And if you put together a coherent argument, I may even agree with you.

I make a point, these days, of trying to read opinions from all over the political spectrum. I don’t agree with everything I read – I really spend too long writing rebuttals in my head that never get written down – but I find it helps me to understand what the other side(s) is thinking. Reading their writings does not mean that I am committing treason or betraying my roots. Nor, for that matter, does acknowledging that the other side might have a point also mean that I have to accept their actions.

Years ago, I noted that the Right seemed to believe that even considering the enemy’s arguments might hold some validity was treason, while the Left appeared to believe that the enemy’s arguments (and justifications) had to be accepted without question. I wish things were that simple now.

I’d like to finish this short essay with a couple of observations.

First, over the past few months, I’ve read (and written) a lot of articles trying to explain why Hillary Clinton lost the general election. One theory that popped up sounded oddly plausible – Hillary didn’t change course because she thought she was winning. Assuming this is true, why would it be the case? Did it, perhaps, have something to do with her supporters not knowing a single Trump supporter? That Trump supporters feared that they would be punished for daring to say so openly? That, in the end, her campaign staff and richest supporters chose to believe their own propaganda instead of constantly checking and rechecking their premises?

If I could predict Trump’s win, why couldn’t Hillary Clinton?

The second point is, I think, a little more important. Unless you’re fighting the War on Straw, it isn’t actually that easy to convince someone to change their minds overnight, particularly when it goes against everything they believe. You might be right – objectively or subjectively – but it takes time for them to change. Slapping them down for daring to disagree does not help. Silencing them only convinces them that you are trying to hide the truth. Finding out why someone believes something, even if you know it to be wrong, is often more productive than shouting at them.

But this does, of course, require the patience to engage.

Pretend you’re in Hogwarts, standing next to Harry, Ron and Hermione. Draco comes along and starts shooting his mouth off about muggleborns being inferior to purebloods. In one universe, the Golden Trio hex him savagely and stamp off … and Draco declares, even as he bleeds, that they couldn’t actually counter his arguments …

… And he’s actually right. They didn’t win the argument. They only silenced him.

But what if, instead …

DRACO <sneers>: “Muggleborns are useless at magic.”

HARRY <reasoned tone>: “How come Hermione gets higher marks than you, pureblood?

DRACO <sneers>: “The teachers all favour her, Potter.”

HARRY <dryly>: “Even Professor Snape?”

DRACO: “…”

This is not an instant conversion. Of course it isn’t. Draco was raised to believe that purebloods were superior, so he’s very tempted to think that Hermione is being favoured by the teachers. But Snape is the one teacher who wouldn’t be tempted to favour a show-off know-it-all …

… And that is the first flaw in Draco’s argument. Given time, who knows? It might even change his mind.

But if you treat everyone who disagrees with you as an irredeemable enemy, you’re only going to close more and more minds.


22 Responses to “Opinions, Opinions … And Politics”

  1. Jack Hudler February 23, 2017 at 10:38 pm #

    “But if you treat everyone who disagrees with you as an irredeemable enemy, you’re only going to close more and more minds.”

    Yet another reason Hillery lost.

  2. Jack Hudler February 23, 2017 at 10:43 pm #

    Here’s a YouTube page that I subscribe: He’s British, on the Left and his reasoning leaves me always questioning.
    Pay particular attention to his; “This Week in Stupid”

  3. shrekgrinch February 23, 2017 at 11:30 pm #

    “…trolls struck from the shadows, with moderators turning a blind eye (as long as the trolls were on the same side.) The rules were only enforced against people the moderators didn’t like or didn’t agree with,”

    A lot like how CNN and MSNBC run things at their newsrooms.

    • Conrad C Bassett, Jr. February 27, 2017 at 12:56 pm #

      Both sides are to blame for that. I know it’s popular to parrot the president claiming that CNN and MSNBC as fake news but I have caught Fox and other right wing news organization that blatantly do the same thing. There is an agenda here and it’s not about open debate. It’s about controlling minds. History has always been slanted by the victors but now a days history is just slanted period. I have heard you quote fake news as if it was the gospel. So don’t just blame the left if you want to call them that.

  4. Billy February 24, 2017 at 12:05 am #

    i have seen when one side has a good idea, the other side wont even consider it.

    Because, the other side came up with it.

    Talk about hate. They hate the other side so much, that they would rather destroy the country and themselves to even consider something might be a good idea.

    They don’t even think about the old saying * a clock is right twice a day.

    And those two times come up and they are good ideas.

    To reject them ONLY because they came from the other side, is pretty stupid thinking.

    That’s just my 2 cents.

  5. David Graf February 24, 2017 at 1:31 am #

    When winning is all that counts, you can expect trollish behavior both online and in politics.

  6. Don February 24, 2017 at 2:47 am #

    Just love the comments here as Trolls are online writing what Trump want them to repeat.

    Just a question to Chris, why keep talking about US political situation as your own country is about to go through major changes to their relationship politically and trade with the rest of the world?

    I mean you had your major newspaper having a headline “Enemy of the People” that would be very interesting essay to right about.

    Also that one side shut down any form of debate from the other side saying meaningless things like “You lost so take it” or project fear or “moaners” and love this one “will of the people” with 2% majority. That everything is good and will get better. Democratic system does not mean those in the minority in that election lose all voice in the debate.

    I would love to read about your thoughts on those tactics as you wrote about people having meaningful debate on serious issues without trolls in the internet but you have to expend that to off-line as well.

    • chrishanger February 25, 2017 at 9:30 pm #

      I’m waiting to get a solid idea of what is about to happen, re BREXIT, before committing text to computer


      • Conrad C Bassett, Jr. February 27, 2017 at 1:15 pm #


        While I understand you like to comment on US politics, some of your information is wrong and that’s where we part company. For example, you said the Republicans won because of out of touch Washington and the landmark legislation that has cause problems for business.

        While there are some issues with Washington being out of touch. The real reason the republicans won are very complex much of which have very little to do with the regulations that you quoted in a previous article.

        The Republicans won partially because of gerrymandering, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, racism, the desire for American exceptionalism, and greed. If you really want to understand US politics and how things came to be, then you have to go through the long history of what happens here. Why do I bring this up when you’re monologue was about debates. Because, the relevance is that people in the US rely on knowing and not understanding. There is a difference, so they don’t question what they know or seek understanding. Has that always been part of the human equation yes, but it seems to be more prevalent now. For example, everyone knew the earth was flat, and they would kill you if you said otherwise. Now everyone knows Global Warming is a myth, and they will ignore scientific evidence that shows otherwise. See what I mean? It’s like the movie Idiocracy. Intellectual discourse has been overtaken by thuggish behavior because they know they are right.

      • chrishanger February 27, 2017 at 9:47 pm #

        I think it would be more accurate to argue that the Republican Party won the election in spite of its elites, rather than because of them. Jeb Bush was the elitist candidate and he fell faster than … something that falls very fast. You could probably even argue that Trump – rather than the GOP in general – won the election.

        I’m actually planning another essay touching on the other points you raised, but – in short – what I think happened is that a lot of credibility was squandered over the last 20 decades or so. Anti-intellectualism is only a thing, IMHO at least, because intellectuals have been wrong with confidence so many times. Global warming, for example, has been marred with bad (or downright faked science) and tainted with a flat refusal to debate the issue, let alone have a purely scientific analysis. Right now, that tainting translates into ‘global warming is a myth’ and so on.


  7. georgephillies February 24, 2017 at 3:28 am #

    I was in the minority of Americans who thought the election was fairly close…either side could win. As it happened, the popular vote totals were accurately predicted by polling, The electoral vote total was not, but by-state polls are less frequent and foten less accurate.

    Now I have people trying to tell me that in the rest of the world the popular vote determined the winner. A counterexample is provided by my nearest foreign country, Canada, which differs form the US only in that the districts are smaller and the “electors” (MPs) are the Members of Parliament.

  8. Big Ben February 24, 2017 at 4:09 am #

    I distinctly recall the first time I realized that our political system was headed into rough seas – when Karl Rove repeatedly stated during the 2000 election that all W needed to win was, “Fifty percent plus one.”
    Technically true, but that’s a crappy way to run an election and a massive and diverse democracy.

    So here we are aboard our ship of state. The democrats spin the wheel to the left and the ship goes in circles that way for a while. Then the republicans take over, spin the wheel right and the ship goes in circles that way for a while.
    And the whole time it’s burning fuel, not going anywhere productive and the seas keep getting rougher.

  9. RandyBeck February 24, 2017 at 5:30 am #


    Part of the problem is that these aren’t debates. They’re either cocktail parties or two-minute hates.

  10. PhilippeO February 24, 2017 at 8:29 am #

    About Hillary Clinton, that because nearly everybody predicted Clinton victory. Sam Wang, give 99% chance of Clinton victory, several other poll experts also predicted similar results. Nate Silver was mocked for giving only 70% chance of victory. even Trump own internal poll show that Clinton is likely winner.

    the cause of this is two-fold 1) Historical precedent that Rust Belt would vote Democrats is taken for granted by everybody, even polling is rarely conducted there 2) Comey letter did swing 2% at last week, sudden November surprise that nobody predicted

    free speech didn’t mean that speech shouldn’t have any consequences. Boycott, Protest and letter of complain to any company/store/etc also part of freedom of speech. People also free to choose their friend, everybody had right to unfriend or frozen out anyone with or without any reason. Its part of freedom of association

    Internet is wrong platform for any good debate. In Internet : People had no incentive to work or even see each other like in school or court debate, Most people want is entertainment not working together, People have limited time and attention, and too many option to choose, etc

    for Debate to succeed several perequisite is necessary a) people who participate is already part of one community, real or virtual who seek future direction b) people had desire/goal/incentive to change other people minds c) There must be good moderator, trusted by both sides d) There must be some value or fact that accepted by both sides, so debate is anchored to something.

    In your potter example, Draco acceptance that school mark is useful guide to magical ability and Snape is teacher who gave grade fairly is the cause its succeed. If Draco consider Snape corrupt or untrustworthy then it would achieve nothing. Similar result will happen if Draco consider school result didn’t show ‘real’ magical ability. Debating Draco also only valuable because they live in same community.

    In Internet all that didn’t exist. Internet is equivalent of Potter debating tourist magician from other continent who didn’t see Hogwarts as respectable magic school.

    • William Ameling February 24, 2017 at 10:49 am #

      Politics and society would be a lot easier if people realized that many/most of the people that they meet have a lot of the same ideas and desires. The only difference is in what is more important and less important to them, and that those priorities can change as you grow, move, get new jobs, have families, and retire, etc.

  11. ChaosDancer February 24, 2017 at 11:07 am #

    Hilary lost because she wasn’t likeable, she lost because she represented wall street which has completely fucked the middle class since forever. No one likes to work 10 – 12 hours a day and make shit and see in the media, oh this guys in wall street or this banker made last month 50 million.

    It completely destroys any chance for people to get of their asses and vote for that guy. Furthermore most people make decisions based on their emotions and not logic, because apparently according to US logic is a tool for the elitists, “sigh”.

    As for Chris post debates happen when people hear one another and use LOGIC to decide which is right. When one side say because “God says so” or “Saw it on FOX” i think its time to leave and go clean toilets or something, you will be happier trust me 😛

    Remember its not my job to educate you, i am trying to convince you on my argument if you behave like a child i am sorry to say go fuck yourself. Its like one of my bosses, i presented evidence, i redid my calculations in front of him and stated what was right, but no he was right and i was wrong, and that’s what has happened with political life in the US. For example climate change, you present your findings, you redo your calculations constantly, you show that ice is melting and what the opposition does they bring a snowball, after that fuck them 🙂

  12. PuffinMuffin February 24, 2017 at 12:54 pm #

    I think the argument being made is that logical argument can defeat emotional decisions. For some people it can. For many others, not.

    Personally speaking I have come up with situations where someone simply cannot or will not change their mind no matter how reasonable and logical the argument is, not because I can’t think of a reason to change their mind, but because there is no reason in existence that can possibly do that. For these people emotion trumps (!) reason every time. I gave upon them. I don’t hate them, it’s more as if I pity them.

    As for for politics, it’s all about winning. How that is achieved does not matter. Emotions, logic, bribes, threats… anything. No inference can be made from this process as to which is “better”. Any politician who does not know this, or does not know how to use one of these to best effect isn’t going to win. Call me cynical, but I think that all a politician needs to do is lie convincingly for a few weeks or months, and then if they win, they get a country to play with for four or five years. If they lose, well, what do they personally lose? Nothing very much I can see.

    This is why I have long held the opinion that we need general elections more frequently. That in certain countries it is far too easy for a leader to win and hence gain untrammeled power (the absurdity of handing such power to someone who gained 25-30% of the vote!). The “checks and balances” need to be made tougher. But I can’t see that happening: the prize, the benefits of winning are far too great. No winner will ever willingly dilute their own power. And the loser won’t be in a position to.

    • Vapori February 24, 2017 at 5:21 pm #

      That is actually true but you have to listen for, that, it’s incredibly hard to argument against your own cause, or your own emotions,

      Let’s say you strongly think that Elections should be held more often, then you see, all the good points that such a change would made you would also see some of the most obvious counter arguments, but not all. That is just the way the human mind works and hat is hard to change.
      It might be possible to change your mind and your emotion with good arguments, when someone has time to think over, it, but normally most people don’t think that much over politics. And if they don’t expose themself to many different options i’s hard too see and stay open for them.

      Well and the most conservative and liberals see their political point more like a religion then politics so questioning their beliefs is kinda tricky.

      As Dowe I’m also interested in your viewpoint in other topics, but regarding the US and the current rift between democrats and republicans, i think it has grown historically.

      The dems were more liberal in general before the 1960s but not by much, many people in the south states were dems and quite conservative..that had grown historically Lincoln had been a Republican
      and they still hated him and his party for freeing the blacks from slavery

      Then a dem gave blacks the same rights as anyone else, and so many conservative dems left the party so that the Republican became more right and the dems more left.

      Then in the 90s both parties discouraged their members to form friendships with people from the opposite party. And the debates got a great deal more ugly since then.

  13. georgephillies February 24, 2017 at 2:55 pm #

    ” all W needed to win was, “Fifty percent plus one.” Technically true”

    Actually, completely false. The electoral vote is all that matters.

    Readers interested in why Clinton lost are referred to Sean Trende, writing on RealClearPolitics.com. A core issue — which is not new this year — is that the Democrats well before Clinton have been progressively losing rural areas, small towns, and smaller cities…and many states don’t have the very large cities where Democrats do well.

    • Big Ben February 26, 2017 at 5:42 pm #

      An astute political operator will know exactly how many electoral votes are needed to win and where to campaign to get them. Basically, fifty percent of the electoral college plus one, and the winner can tell the other half of the country (and Senator Elizabeth Warren) that doesn’t agree with him to sit down and shut up.
      I also recall shortly after the Supreme Court decided Bush v Gore that W came out and declared he had a mandate from the people, or some such nonsense. Definitely made it sound like he had overwhelming support, when in reality he had almost exactly 50% plus a smidgen … in the electoral college, of course.

  14. Eric Bogomolny February 25, 2017 at 1:14 am #

    Chris, you wrote, “Years ago, I noted that the Right seemed to believe that even considering the enemy’s arguments might hold some validity was treason, while the Left appeared to believe that the enemy’s arguments (and justifications) had to be accepted without question.” Are you sure this is not a typo? Because, in my experience this only applies to arguments between the West and the enemies of the West, be it Communists or islamists. From what I’ve seen of arguments between Democrats and Republicans, the opposite is true. It’s the Democrats who usually attack anyone on their side who considers the opposition’s argument, while Republicans are often afraid to argue, lest they offend somebody.

  15. J. M. February 27, 2017 at 6:55 pm #

    “… the cultish belief that anyone who disagrees has to be driven out – is spreading into the real world.”

    I believe the word “spreading” is incorrect. The internet allows for anonymous discourse – which has provided a chilling effect on opposition political or really any discourse. That being said, the expansion of echo-chambers on the internet is simply an extension of branching media. Fox News was created in 1996, thus launching a prime-time vehicle for opinions that use to be relegated to AM talk radio in the US (for conservative oriented audiences).

    Additionally, I agree that the majority of main stream media in the US has a slight left leaning bias – though, I would argue that reality has a left leaning bias as well. The point is this, discourse has shifted to a dichotomy due to yes the internet, but also the expansion of bias media. The internet just allows for the civility to breakdown a bit faster.

    Finally, you said..”But they don’t have the right to have that opinion treated as revealed truth. If you want someone to take your opinions seriously, you have to convince them that your opinions deserve to be taken seriously.

    Finding out why someone believes something, even if you know it to be wrong, is often more productive than shouting at them.”

    The expansion of the echo-chamber makes your point moot. People have there own facts, or fuck sake “alternative facts.”

    I have an advanced degree Public Policy. I specialize in economic development and data analysis. I am a centrist and a policy wonk for want of a better word. I truly do not care if an idea is raised by a Republican or Democrat. I only care if something works, how efficiently it works and what trade-offs are made by implementing one plan vs another. Like many people, I’m human and cannot divorce my emotions from every facet of politics, but I do attempt to avoid speaking about things I don’t know for a certainty. The problem is I have no problem saying, I don’t know.

    The problem with facts, especially facts given about policy, there is very rarely a best answer. Reality is, most things about running a government are more complex than you can fit in a single paragraph or report or even a book for that matter. The average American doesn’t have the intellectual resources to really grapple with large policy issues. This is not to say, they are not smart enough, but they don’t have the time or background to make a truly informed opinion about an issue.

    For example: NAFTA. A multi-decade, international trade agreement. I cannot without any certainty tell you the immediate or long-term effects on local, state, interstate or national economies. I cannot readily provide the negative or positive externalities of the agreement would have or had on a shifting knowledge based economy. The point I’m trying to make is that most people don’t have the time or skills needed to find this out. I could probably do it, and provide a thorough report after a month or two, but I can probably assure that the answer would not be a judgement of good or bad, but that it’s complicated.

    To the point, I love debate and rhetoric. I enjoy discussion, but engaging in any type of true debate about politics or policy in this country is like knocking on the door and no one being home.

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