Thursday, August 27, 2009

How Should One Respond to Ignorant Opinions Without Snark?

Snark is the lifeblood of the blogosphere. But at the Gruntled Center we promote gratitude, cheerfulness, contentment - or at least resolute civility. I really do want to find common ground with people I disagree with. And that depends on some common body of facts on which we agree, as well as opinions about them over which we might still disagree.

Other people in the public sphere, though, are met with more than differing opinions. They are met every day with angry people asserting as facts things that are just not so.

When Senator McCain, during the presidential campaign, was confronted by a woman who asserted that Barack Obama was a Muslim, he gently corrected her. She was nonplussed, but did not fight him; she was there as a McCain supporter.

By contrast, Democratic Congressman Barney Frank was confronted at a town hall meeting by a woman who accused him of supporting "this Nazi policy" - by which I think she meant the false belief that the health care proposal before Congress would force old people to accept euthanasia. Congressman Frank asked her "what planet do you normally reside on?" This was fine snark and drew a big laugh, but is clearly an ineffective way to promote civil conversation with people who are determinedly wrong.

Because people do not thank you when you point out that they have their facts all wrong. They just get mad.

Recently, Republican Congressman Bob Inglis reported that at a town-hall meeting in suburban Simpsonville, SC, a man stood up and told Congress to "keep your government hands off my Medicare." The Congressman "had to politely explain that, 'Actually, sir, your health care is being provided by the government,' " Inglis recalled. "But he wasn't having any of it."

He wasn't having any of it. How should one respond helpfully, without arrogance or condescension, in a way that actually reaches people, when they are just flat wrong?

A recent poll by Public Policy Polling tried to find out just what the "birthers" who doubt President Obama's citizenship actually believe. A quarter of the people polled did not believe that Pres. Obama was a citizen. Of that 25%, 6% - a quarter of all the birthers - knew that Obama was born in Hawaii, but did not think Hawaii was part of the United States.

I have not met a birther, or someone who believes that there will be "death panels," or someone who says "keep your government hands off my Medicare." But it is only a matter of time. (In fact, this post may bring a few out). Truly, I would welcome helpful suggestions.


halifax said...

One aspect of internet blogging and responding that encourages incivility (and I have been guilty of engaging in this infelicity for precisely these reasons) is the anonymity that the internet provides. I don’t think that most people would engage in vituperative attacks without the veil in front of their face.

Of course, you bring up the question of what to do with those who appear to be making arguments based upon obviously false premises. As you know, this is not an issue particular to Democratic administrations, though it seems more significant to them now that they are in office. There were plenty of people who accused Mr. Bush of secretly exploding the buildings in NYC on 9/11 so that he could then pass all sorts of laws detrimental to the liberty of American citizens, etc. These accusations are actually much more offensive than the silly claims that Mr. Obama is a Muslim or that he wasn’t born in the US. But that’s neither here nor there because it doesn’t answer the question of to deal with crazy people.

I would suggest that it depends on your position. As a professor or teacher, there is really no need whatsoever to put up with this kind of nonsense from your students. As a citizen, one might want to be polite, but again, there is no reason not to tell the conspiracy theorist in question that you are not interested in his/her deranged nightmares.

Politicians, of course, have to answer to these crazy people, so it is in their interest to placate them in some circumstances. But the circumstances are key. Mr. Frank doesn’t have to appease anyone who objects to the health care plan because he knows that most of his constituents are in favor of it. At the same time, with the advent of the 24 hour news cycle and the availability of almost all public statements, he does have to consider how his actions will be received in the rest of the country, so it would be wise to engage in the arts of politesse to appease, not his constituents who like him anyway, but possible supporters of his agenda in the country at large. It is the second consideration which Mr. Frank, like his opponents on the conservative side, always forgets because he is merely concerned with getting reelected.

As a blogger, I would merely suggest that it is up to you to decide how nasty your comments section will be. Much of what you write is not particularly likely to raise hackles, but sometimes you comment on issues (e.g. gay marriage, the health care bill) that are quite controversial. Controversy tends to produce as much heat as light and there is no method to tell us how we might successfully separate the wheat from the chaff.

Susan Weston said...

With stand-up comedy, the audience does not expect literal truth-telling. On the contrary, they expect the performer to distort details in order to make a main point more vivid--and more entertaining. As a successful performance peaks, the distortions get wilder, the key message gets stronger, and the audience roars with delight.

Gruntled, you've asked about how to respond to those who deny the President's citizenship and invent patently false provisions in federal legislation.

I suggest assuming that they're engaged in street theater, and using that to frame your response. For example:

1. Matching their outrage with your own will make their performance more exciting and more likely to continue.

2. Face-to-face, I think the constructive response is a soft-voiced (not on stage) personal appeal. Maybe "I don't believe that, and I hope you don't believe it either." If there's religious common ground, step onto that gorund and ask the other person to do the same.

3. By e-mail or on Facebook, between people who know one another, a similar appeal may work, especially because there's a lasting relationship you can draw on.

4. On a blog, you can't make a similar move to the personal. There, the people in the conversation are invisible and anonymous. You can't use eye contact and personal warmth as you would with a strange at a rally. You can't use shared history as you would with a friend or colleague. That's why a truly constructive response--one that builds civility and strengthens civic discourse--takes so much work.

michael bush said...

Here is another blogger noodling about a different but related problem: colleagues who wrongly think they are being persecuted in outrageous ways and use that perception as a weapon ("victim bullies"):

One possibility he suggests is to go along, giving encouragement, so that the outrageous claims get more and more so, until the person realizes the situation is out of control. Another is to say, "Duly noted" or some such non-committal thing and go on with your life.

Kerri said...

The high road, and the hardest and most time-consuming road, is to hand them the resources that show that they've gotten the facts wrong.

Like... a map of the U.S.

Anonymous said...

I don't really believe that there will be "death panels", but neither do I believe that Obama will be able to cover all the currently uninsured, maintain everyone's current level of coverage, and lower costs, all by doing things more efficiently and thereby saving money. Something has to give, as the saying goes.

If he was willing to take on the trial lawyers and introduce medical malpractice tort reform that might do it, but the "death panel" will dispatch me long before that happens...only kidding.

From a Christian perspective I think we should be a little calmer and more accepting of impending death...after all, what should we be afraid of?

tess said...

You simply respond in humility.Maybe your opinion is ignorant. Just a thought.

Gruntled said...

I am in favor of humility. But Hawaii really is a state.