Monday, February 28, 2011

The Evil Of Polarized Thinking

Breaking news: Libya has decided to make Charlie Sheen its new dictator. Meanwhile, NBC has offered a contract to Momar Gaddafi to do the next season of Three and A Half Men. This, the first move of the new Insane Celebrity Foreign Exchange Program, promises to solve two national crises a the same time.

Of course, I'm totally bullshitting. But isn't it interesting how, when people have been inside their own little world for a long time, they just don't seem to see things normally anymore? Charlie thinks he's beyond mentally healthy, beset upon by hordes of stupid network executives. Gaddafi insists that all his people love him, even the ones who have taken over the Eastern half of his country, and are threatening to take over his capital city.

The point is, when people insulate themselves from the truth long enough, the comfortable lie becomes too comfortable to let go, for some. But the essence of truth is to embrace reality no matter how painful it is.

If only that were to be realized more in politics.

Led by an ever-growing right-wing media hype machine, the tug of war has not significantly pulled the rope much one way or the other. But it has gotten more people on one side of the rope or the other than ever before. The more people get on one side of the rope and pull, the more others feel compelled to get on the other side and pull harder. Thus, when Washington Democrats rightly bitched about the irresponsible use of the filibuster for every damned, little thing, Wisconsin Democrats went and did what amounts to the ultimate filibuster. They didn't do it to be hypocrites. They did it because they felt they had no other choice (and they were right).

Comedian Paul Provenza said it best on this weekend's edition of 'Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!' the NPR news quiz show. Isn't it just like the Democrats, he said, to finally stand up to the Republicans and have a winning strategy against them, and it involves running away.

There was a better time when the rope was seldom pulled. There used to be lots of moderate Republicans and Democrats who would meet in the middle, come up with good compromises, and make fair solutions. Oh, things weren't perfect then, naturally. But they were a whole lot better than they seem to be right now.

Then, one era, a bunch of people - pissed off, white, religious, affluent or possessing delusions of future affluence - decided they couldn't let something as trivial as freedom to allow America to transform into something that didn't conform to their preferences. So they picked up the rope, and started yanking on it desperately to the right. All those who favored balance suddenly had no other option but to get on the other extreme and yank the other way. Now, it's become two gigantic hordes of yankers -- a confederacy of literal jerks.

To those who are seeing the culture war erupt into much more than mere metaphor in Madison, all I can say is, this is the way you wanted it, all you people on the right. This is the conflict you craved. This is your culture war. And you're not winning.

It's STILL a tie!

Where have all the moderates gone? Sadly, they've become an endangered species. There are a few moderates who are left of center, but to the right of that center, it seems like a barren wasteland until one comes to the extreme end of the right wing. There, it's suddenly quite crowded, not unlike a horde of lemmings massing on the edge of a cliff, about to jump off.

The unions have offered a compromise. It's a damned good compromise. And if Walker really wants to bust those unions up, he has four long years to cook up endless strategies that he and his majority in both Assembly and Senate can implement. There is simply no need to engage in this kind of trench warfare now, or ever.

But this is the danger of polarized thinking. It blinds people to rational agreement. It transforms our fellow neighbors into enemies. It makes enemies of coworkers, friends, family members, even blokes at the local pubs, which, as the Journal Sentinel reports, have had to disallow talking politics inside their establishments - it leads to fights these days.

Economist Noreena Hertz cites an enlightening study in human nature in a recent TED Conference talk. In this study, participants in an MRI machine were asked to listen to an expert in a given topic. Amazingly, the area of the brain that governs acceptance lights up, meaning that we tend to follow "the experts" blindly, without criticism. How interesting!

Even more interesting is that "the experts" are often wrong. Doctors mis-diagnose four out of ten cases. And you're probably better off preparing your own taxes than going to a tax expert in most situations.

We need the maturity to challenge "the experts," not follow blindly, and make our own judgment. That doesn't mean getting a Ph.D. in everything, but it does mean challenging those who do have the doctorates. It means demanding that they explain things in clear, concise terms. They'll be annoyed at having to do this, but tough.

Walker has no room for seeing things from both sides. He demonstrably could care less, in fact. The experts he's listened to have convinced him that he's married to this conflict, and it will make him or break him. He's trapped. But the rest of us don't have to be so silly. We can choose to weigh both sides for ourselves. I suggest we all do so.

Then, just maybe, we can all be friendly Wisconsinites again.

Eric

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