Jan 18, 2012

Debating the Debate

Uncanny Likenesses
I had the fortune to attend the Republican Debate on Monday night, January 16th, in Myrtle Beach.  It was a very interesting experience to say the least, and while I would love to dive headlong into how I felt about the outcome, I think Chris Cillizza at The Fix  (Washington Post)  does a rather nice job of summing it up.  Instead, what I took from the debate was an epiphany resulting mostly from a Facebook conversation the night before with a political science high school student.

The chain of correspondences started in response to a post by a very good friend of mine, an article by ThinkProgress.org that recapped an appearance by John Stossel of Fox News.  While appearing on Your World with Neil Cavuto, Stossel makes the argument that young people who "don't pay attention to the (political) issues" forging the elections should simply not vote.  He went as far as to insinuate, because they were "uninformed", they don't deserve to vote.  Stossel:
John Stossel
"I’m not saying we should have a test or something. But this endless cheerleading — let’s go to the rock concerts and register the kids. And the kids aren’t paying attention. And it’s important in a democracy, it’s important to vote. And these are important issues. The people who participate ought to be the ones who pay attention…I’m just saying we shouldn’t have these “Get Out The Vote” campaigns and make these statements: “Everyone has to vote. It’s your patriotic duty!” Well if you’re not paying attention, I think it’s your patriotic duty not to vote."
Cavuto went on to ask, "When is it OK to be stupid", which summed up the overall message of the interview: young people are stupid, don't deserve to vote and should not vote.  


While we discussed on Facebook the ridiculous lack of merit behind these claims, I had a problem with a comment about who should actually be considered "smart".  The comment was that "smart people are the ones who follow the news but know how to distinguish what is bias or facts".  And, while I felt this was fair and to a certain extent true, I found it to be unsatisfactory, even if I couldn't exactly put my finger on why.  After attending the debate and being surrounded by many educated, informed and what I would consider "smart" people, I realized the problem.


I would argue that being "smart", or what I will call "informed", goes far beyond distinguishing between bias and fact.  It lies in a person's ability to avoid the rhetoric which often influences personal choice.  During the debate, I found myself in the midst of a very excitable crowd that was fervently cheering almost every candidate's response.  And, while it may have seemed the cheering was for a candidate, I often felt it resulted from energetic words rather than an ideology.  To a certain extent, I felt like I was getting a locker room pep talk instead of a solution or answer to a question, and more often than not, the candidate would read the room and feed the seemingly bloodthirsty frenzy with a zinger like, "South Carolina is at war!" (Rick Perry).  It was difficult not to get caught up in the moment, even if you didn't exactly agree with the candidate's views.  The energy was palpable. 

This effect interestingly enough was discussed recently on a podcast from the team of Jab Abumrad and Robert Krulwich at Radio Lab called "The Bad Show", which explored the reasons why seemingly good people do very bad things.  One of the stories highlights the famous experiment by Stanley Milgrim in the 1960's, which highlighted the power of "obedience".  Milgrim was influenced by the Nazi Holocaust and seeked to understand why so many seemingly decent people would follow through with such a deviant and evil ideology.  What he found is that under certain conditions, typically while under the direction of individuals in a position of influence, men and women would engage in behavior that radically contrasted their moral beliefs.  The actual experiment put individuals in a position to cause pain and suffering to a complete stranger in order to further scientific research.  So, therein lies the relationship to politics: an individual's moral belief system at times can be compromised by the influence of an educated, powerful and generally well-meaning candidate.  Understanding this is as important as understanding the issues.

In the end, I believe that being "informed" goes far beyond deciphering bias from fact (there are countless fact checking websites that will give you the explanation you want anyway).  It involves first understanding your own individual moral needs and personal ambitions completely.  Second, understanding the influence of others and avoiding the rhetoric which may cloud your ability to decide.  Third, being able to examine a topic or issue from all sides and giving the proper respect to different points of views.  And lastly, understanding that your preferences will change in time and that this is and should be completely acceptable.  These are the "informed" individuals.

Regardless, I am happy that our humble little town of Myrtle Beach hosted the debate and earned some great national exposure.  Also, the sandcastle was awesome!  I can only hope someday to have a sandcastle in my likeness ... although they will need more sand to represent my expanding forehead.