“Where Do You Stand?”: The Central Importance of Debate In A Democracy

Recently, I have been promoting “message board activism” as an easy and fun form of activism. A few people have responded favorably. Mostly, the appeal has been met with, well

Yawn (0 / 0)

it’s not worth debating wingnuts on the internet. I don’t know why, but they seem to be the craziest of them all (even crazier than talk show radio listeners). It’d be better if they could even admit that Democrats might have a point once in a blue moon. Unfortunately, they can’t.

In similar fashion, I am frequently asked whether I have ever “changed minds.” Both of these responses completely miss the point. You might as well ask me whether, in my experience as a courtroom advocate, I ever changed the mind of an opposing lawyer. The answer is “no.” Not ever. The opposing lawyer gets paid to represent his side. He could be sitting across the table from me thinking, “boy my client is an asshole,” but he will not tell me that. He is not permitted to be persuaded. He is an advocate for his side, and I am an advocate for mine. Our job is not to persuade each other, but to persuade the decision maker. The only thing I want to persuade an opponent to believe, is that he is going to lose — and he therefore ought to settle. The audience for my “argument” with my opponent is NOT my opponent. It is the people who decide which one of us is right.

With that introduction, let me give you a simple illustration of the political process — and your role in it as an advocate. Imagine that you are part of a group of a hundred people, all crowded into one room. Now imagine that the room is peopled with a representative cross section of the American Public. There will be 30 or 35 Republicans, 35 or 40 Democrats, 25 or so “independents,” 2 or 3 Greens or Libertarians, and maybe a single Nazi or a single Communist.

Now feed that collection of people of simple question. “Should the US withdraw it’s forces from Iraq” is a fairly simple and timely example. Give the folks a simple instruction. If you think we should withdraw, move to the left side of the room. If you think we shouldn’t, move to the right side of the room. If this were a real world example — and there is no reason you could not create this scenario, as a simple experiment — you would quickly notice, in addition to numbers of people promptly moving, a fair number of people lingering in the middle of the room. It might actually be a substantial number, who for whatever reason don’t know “where they stand.”

Metaphorical expressions have their origin in some concrete scenario. This is the literal origin of what people mean when they talk about “where I stand.” They literally mean which group of people they would “stand” with, if they were stuck in a room, and asked to walk to one side of it or the other. If you are an advocate, and you find yourself working this room, your task is very simple. That task is cause as many people as you can to walk to your side of the room and “stand” with you.

Take notice of the particular conditions inherent in this scenario. The question put to the people in the room, could be any question at all. Do you like the President? Who should be the next President? Do you approve of the war in Iraq? Do you support universal health care? Or how about, who should get custody of Anna Nicole’s baby — to use an entirely frivolous example, about which people nevertheless have strong opinions. If you put this series of question to this roomful of people, some of them will wind up walking ten miles back and forth, as the question changes, and their position changes. They will walk to the right side on the war, walk to the left side on universal health care, walk back to the right on whether they “like” the President, then walk back to the left for the next President — who winds up being the ideological opposite of Dubya, go figure.

Those people in that room can walk to either side of the room for any reason they want to — good, bad, ugly, or totally off the wall. They can change their mind anytime they want to. They can not follow the “directions.” Instead of moving to the left or right side of the room, they can walk to one end or the other, and stake out their own unique, idiosyncratic position. They can then do their best to cause other people to stand with them on one end. They can base their decision on reason, on where their friends “stand,” on which advocate is “cute,” or what the aliens who abducted them last night told them to do. They can adopt logically consistent or totally contradictory positions. And of course, they can plant their feet solidly in the middle of the room, and never leave it. Just for good measure, imagine that room with two big screen TV’s in it — one showing the super bowl, and the other showing the latest episode of American Idol — distracting them from even thinking about whatever question happens to be under consideration.

All politics boils down to art of causing the people in that room to move one way or the other. It is the art of taking a position on one side or the other of that room, and causing people to “stand” with you. To be successful, you will need to learn how to persuade the whole person. You will not have the luxury of persuading people who make their decisions in quite same way that you do. In many cases, you will be persuading people whose very thought process is “wholly other” from the way you think about things. Neither do you have the luxury of picking the people who are present in the room. You take them as you find them. Or to borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, you don’t get to win elections with the voters you want. You have to deal with the voters you’ve got.

The art of political debate is central to this process. Whatever position you would urge on the people in that room, there is someobody urging the ass opposite position. He is just as committed to his position as you are to yours, and he is working just as hard as you are to move the people in that room his way. Take notice that as to individual questions, it is a zero sum game. Every person he wins to his side, is one less person you have won to yours. Thus, your ability to persuade anybody in particular to move in your direction necessarily includes the ability to counteract and neutralize the effect of his efforts. This could include superior logic, superior facts, or it could include a superior ability to engage in rank manipulation or appeals to raw emotion.

If you don’t like rank manipulation and appeals to raw emotion, you had better develop the ability to counteract them. Your opponent enjoys a first amendment privilege to freedom of speech and of the press. As a practical matter. that means he is absolutely free to stone cold manipulate the living dog shit out of people. Saying he “shouldn’t” is so much pissing in the wind. He can, and he will — unless you know how to stop him.

There is a basic skill of swaying the people in that room. That basic skill is called “debate.” Debate is not a purely rational affair — and you may as well know it. The reason for this is simple. The people in that room are not purely — or even primarily — rational creatures. They base their decision making on all sorts of bullshit. The skill of debate is how to tap into the bullshit that helps you, avoid the bullshit that doesn’t, and somewhere in the process, communicate the facts and logic of your position. It s not an easy skill to learn.

Which brings us back to the online message board. In the old days, people congregated together in various venues, and argued about the public’s business. They gathered in saloons, pool halls, and town squares, to talk about everything from politics to the weather. Teevee and anonymous suburban living have caused those venues — and the discussion skills they fostered — to atrophy. Instead, the passive American watches the debate on television. Instead of engaging in it himself, with his neighbors in the local saloon, he participates vicariously through the talking heads on the boob tube.

The internet has revived the lost art of discussion and participatory debate — and at the same time, plugging it into a vast resevoir of readily available information and opinion. Your news and information is no longer spoon fed to you by corporate mouthpieces. There are multitudes of sources of information — including you, since you can talk back. Even better, you don’t have to go out to the local saloon, and you are limited to discussion with the people in your immediate vicinity. You can engage in discussion with people all over the world. You can organize with people, share information, share tactics, coordinate your efforts, and deliver any message you want, in any venue you can find.

Those venues are where you will develop the basic skills of debate — which is the basic skill of politics. Those basic skills, which you can practice in those online forums, are the very same skills you will use when you engage in any other form of activism. Are you a “freeway blogger?” Do you write letters to the editor? Do you call local radio stations? Are you planning a local demonstration? Your messaging will be better, if you have experience seeing what resonates and what doesn’t. You find that out interacting with your opponents, working online message boards.

Over the next several months, I will be organizing efforts to advance our message in numerous venues in Florida. I will be focusing on both prominent personalities, and issues specific to Florida. The purpose of this effort is not only to increase the visibility of our issues on those venues, but to serve as a starting point for organizing offline. If you would like to help, you can start by identifying the local message board — usually identified with the local newspaper — closest to you. You may also contact me at mail@conceptualguerilla.com, for assistance in getting a group started.

Crossposted at Florida Progressive Coalition.

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