Talking About Politics: The 6 Reasons It Stinks

Over the years, I've started to listen not only to what people say but to how they say it. I've consequently come to the conclusion that most political talk sounds the same (with occasional exceptions).

Political talk--specifically the political talk associated with what I call "crisis media" ("The sky is falling! You must vote for or against this policy, person, law, etc. immediately!")--has six traits:

1. It employs "us" versus "them" terminology.

2. It employs "us" versus "them" terminology at a remove.

Consequently, THEY are always intolerant while WE are not. This trait explains why the liberals in my master's program could say, with no irony, "I'm so glad we are more tolerant than those people." "Us" versus "them" at a remove is the same reason why a discussion about humility so often devolves into a discussion of how other (hypocritical) people should be more humble--certainly not me!

3. It employs labels (and the labels are pointless).

Saying, "Those people are power-hungry" or "those people are greedy" is meaningless. Nobody alive is actually greedy; rather, people behave in greedy ways for a variety of reasons.

Take Charles Dickens: one literary theory is that Dickens wrote the character Scrooge to mirror himself. Dickens was obsessed with money and ultimately worked himself to death. Saying, "He was greedy" is far less revealing than realizing that Dickens was haunted his entire life by the memory of his father in debtor's prison.

Likewise, in the great movie A Woman's World, the Fred MacMurray character is working himself to death (ulcers, heart palpitations) much to the dismay of his wife, excellently played by Lauren Bacall; unlike the other candidates for CEO, he made his way to the top from the factory floor, not through a college degree. He is driven to never looked back, never give up, never stop.

Both far, far, far more interesting explanations than any amount of labeling.

4. Politicized talk is myopic. 

The tunnel-vision of politicized talk has nothing to do with how much a person reads on the web or, for that matter, how many pundits the person listens to since the how of the talk is about personal investment, not balance: THIS LAW, THIS PARTY, THIS EVENT MATTERS NOW. IT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANYTHING!

Climbing on bandwagons is usually the result of this type of thinking. Writing about the Supreme Court's decision in 1989 on burning American flags, P.J. O'Rourke remarks in All the Trouble in the World, "I don't remember what my opinion was at the time but I remember that I had a strong one."

Time changes so much!

5. Unfortunately, those who indulge in politicized talk often also indulge in the "Chicken Little" syndrome. 

The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

What is bizarre about this to me is how seldom anyone remembers their own history. I was told that the sky was falling when I was growing up in the 80's at the end of the Cold War. The Day After came out on television in 1983 and Red Dawn (remember: Russians invade Colorado) came out in theaters in 1984; nuclear power was being protested all over the place, and many of my friends believed (or claimed to believe) that the Soviet Union could blow us up at any minute ("I'm going to sleep with my boyfriend before we all die!").

Bunkers and food storage were also big.

Of course, at the end of Henny Penny (variation on
Chicken Little), the wolf eats the folks on
Henny Penny's bandwagon, so the end did come.
Hmmm, self-fulfilling prophecy, anyone?
Since my parents were the kind of people who would have expected me to go to school and get good grades even IF bombs were falling ("Yes, I see the mushroom cloud, honey. So how did you do on your algebra test?") and since I was blessed even as a teenage with a skeptical (not, I like to think, cynical) mindset that acts in accordance with Newton's Laws of Motions ("But I don't see any Russians and I'd much rather continue to spend my time thinking about something else."), I never bothered to climb onto the "we're about to be bombed" bandwagon.

Turns out, the Soviets' nuclear weapons were in such bad shape that they would have blown themselves up first.

That's just my own history. A few years ago, one of my students asked me, "Do you think North Korea [which was making belligerent noises] is going to start a war?"

"No," I said and mentioned the Cold War. I then mentioned the Cuban Missile Crisis and Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table at the U.N.  I wasn't alive during the latter two; still, I read history, and--

"All this sound and fury has happened before," I said.

The student was disappointed and assured me that WWIII was going to occur at any moment (I still went home and corrected papers that night; a cataclysmic event has yet to save me from having to take a test, attend an interview, go to work, or finish my grades.)

The student's disappointment leads to #6.

6. Politicized talk demands that others get upset and offended. 

Note: Acting upset is more important in politicized talk than doing anything. After all, one can do something without acting upset. But politicized talk always demands an audience.

I've mentioned in other posts that one thing that has kept my integrity intact over the years is that I read what I want, not what I'm supposed to read and/or value. I think there is a relationship here to ignoring politicized talk. In high school, I had friends who read teen paperbacks ("Will Caroline marry Dan?") and friends who read "heavier" stuff. Reading the "heavier" stuff was supposedly more enlightening, fulfilling, and insightful. But there was no notable difference between the behavior of the two groups. And I never could fathom why reading something that I found rather dull was supposed to lend me instant prestige or intellectual stature.

Along the same lines, if I'd wanted to join the "thoughtful teenagers who show awareness of contemporary issues!" brigand, getting worked up about an impending nuclear war would have been the way to go. But teenagers, even supposedly aware ones, aren't that thoughtful, having a tendency to reduce complex issues and motivations to "if only somebody would simply do X!" scenarios (arguably necessary in some cases;  Joan of Arc never would have gotten anywhere if she hadn't been a teen!). Some adults never grow out of this tendency.

In the end, borrowing the book (hey, I wanted to find out if Caroline chose that guy or not), finding out the answer, discussing it with my friends, then tracking down the book years later through Amazon to indulge in some misty-eyed nostalgia proved more satisfying and useful to the universe than a thousand hours of hand-wringing about an "crisis" that never took place.


  1. The most bizarre thing I've ran across in political "discussions" is accusing someone being the opposite of the group sensibility because of a single objective comment. For example, I may be on a forum dominated by "conservatives" and I observe that if being self-deterministic is the hallmark of conservatives wouldn't X not fall under the pervue of government? Despite the fact that I've repeatedly demonstrated that I'm a fiscal conservative and social libertarian, the rebuttal is almost always "that's the problem with you liberals." The same thing happens on "liberal" dominated forums.

    In a related vein, once on a psychology forum, I made an objective observation of WHY a certain type of person does something and was immediately attacked as justifying that person's behavior. What made it more weird is that my explanation meant that the person's behavior was much more horrifying than those attacking my position had previously stated, not less.

    It seems that you can't make objective observations without being assumed to be making a simultaneous moral judgement on those observations or in endorsing them.

    (While writing this, I was reminded of conversations where someone says "yes, but what does it mean?" Which led to a memory of an English class I had in, I think, eleventh grade where we were asked to describe what a poem meant. I really irritated the teacher by writing that it was a lovely image of a shell on a beach. "Yes," she replied, "but what did it mean?" To which I unfortunately replied, "Who cares?" I should have added, "Why can't it just impart a lovely image of a shell on a beach?")

  2. I ran into the objective statement perceived as endorsement issue during a discussion of abortion in college. We were discussing whether a child of pro-choice parents-- specifically pro-choice parents who used their child as an object lesson ("I should have had the choice to not have this kid!")--would be pro-life or pro-choice. I argued that the child would be pro-choice. Not only do children often mirror their parents' political stances, I figured from a psychological standpoint, the child would feel the need to justify the parents' position (from a cost/gain perspective, the child either feels rejected or defends the parents' position as his or her own; from a survival perspective, the latter option is the obvious one).

    "Oh, you're just saying that because you are pro-choice," my roommate informed me.

    At the time I wasn't (I support pro-choice now from a libertarian standpoint), and I finally lost my temper and said so.

    Is the objective response so unusual that an imaginative answer ("I think the kid would do this") can't be considered anything BUT subjective?

  3. The Chicken Little syndrome is a reinvention of basic religious impulses. People who'd scoff at "Papal infallibility" endow human-created technology with the same transcendental attributes. Technology is both infallibly evil and infallibly good, taking on roles that reflect the sophistication of a James Bond flick.

    The past year has seen four major rocket failures in expensive, high prestige programs micromanaged up to the moment of launch. And we're supposed to believe that a Minuteman sitting in a silo for years will flawlessly launch at the press of a button with no advance warning? "Faith" doesn't begin to describe such a belief.

    But it's necessary to sustain its Manichean opposite: that there exists a perfect human solution to every "evil" problem. All that's required is a lot of money and the strong arm of the government. That a lot of money and the strong arm of the government likely caused the problem in the first place is never seen to contradict this premise.