The modern idea of Democracy is rooted in the 18th century European Enlightenment and its belief in reason, rationality, and empirical evidence. The founders believed that if sound arguments were placed in front of people, people could figure out the right course of action. We would read or hear the opposing arguments, laid out cleanly and clearly. We would debate and discuss them, like civilized people, and then we would decide. The arguments for and against the Constitution, laid out in the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers, followed this recipe pretty well. Arguments were made, supporting evidence and precedents were cited, respect was given to opposing viewpoints. Up and down the new states, people read, discussed, and argued—passionately, but more-or-less rationally.
And then, almost immediately, the founders threw reason to the wind and started arguing with emotion, hysteria, and outright lies, just like we do today.
Human nature being what it is, we can’t rely on our better angels to win out when it comes to political discourse. We need to be on our guard, all the time, to separate facts from opinions, and reasonable arguments from nonsense. Not just in what we’re reading and seeing, but also in what we, ourselves, are saying. We have to approach everyone—including ourselves—with a healthy dose of skepticism. The survival of the republic depends upon it.
Screaming matches are no way to settle important problems. When we come at every disagreement with emotion, hunger, and bias, we care more about winning than being correct, and that’s a very dangerous thing when you’re dealing with issues of public policy. If I’m wrong about the best way to provide for the poor and the sick—if my ideas are not, in fact, the best and most effective ones, then I should want to lose the argument—because people’s lives are at stake, and their lives are more important than my ego.
We’ve lost sight of that perspective in our public discourse. We simply assume that our ideas are correct because they’re ours—and that being right in the moment is more important than being effective in the long term. We don’t feel the need to double-check or confirm our arguments or those of our allies, because our allegiance is all the proof we require. We don’t feel the need to inquire into the arguments of our foes, because they are already, definitionally, on the wrong side, regardless of what they say or think.
We don’t do this because we’re awful people. We do this because we are taught from an early age to see the world as black vs. white, inside vs. outside, us vs. them. It informs and infects our worldview and our mindset, and it makes it very difficult to deal with diversity or ambiguity.
If your religion sees the world as divided between the forces of light and darkness, where one side must win and the other must be vanquished, if your culture tells you that your group is civilized and other people are barbarians, then it never occurs to you to ask if your group might, perhaps, be wrong. It can’t be. If your thirteen years of primary schooling tell you that in all things there are only right answers and wrong answers, and that the role of Authority is to give you those right answers, and the role of the Follower is to accept them, then it never occurs to you to question Authority—because it is, by definition, correct.
Everything you see and touch becomes a mirror of your mindset. Physical activity limits itself to a series of competitions—because nothing else is worth doing (and people not interested in competing are weak and useless); storytelling focuses on battles between good guys bad guys (and stories where it’s not certain who’s right and who’s wrong are seen as signs of moral decay); art takes as its single purpose the elevation of the Good and the Beautiful (and anything not fitting the culture’s definition of those things is seen as corrupt and disgusting). Everything becomes a zero-sum game where only one side can win or be right, and other side must be destroyed or dismissed. It’s like the old saying: if the only tool you have is a hammer, then the whole world looks like a nail.
Compromise in such a world is a sign of weakness—surrendering some of your light to the power of darkness. Why would you ever do that? Dialogue with people who disagree with you is foolish unless it’s used to persuade, manipulate, or fool your opponent. Why else would you even engage in discussion with them?
What does this kind of dualistic, Manichean way of seeing the world do to democracy? It limits it to a series of votes that drive people into and out of power. Each side remains hermetically sealed and self-contained—never listening to or learning from the other. One side gets a moment in power, and then it is voted out and its policies erased until the next go-round.
The only way to escape this cycle is to allow the thought to enter your brain that you might be wrong—that the other guy might actually have a better way of doing things—that your Authority Figure might be in error, every once in a while—that’s it’s up to you, not them, to decide what’s best—that’s it up to facts, not feelings, to determine what’s true.
An authentically democratic culture requires humility—the acceptance that you might not know everything. An authentically democratic culture requires empathy—the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes and understand the pain, fear, and joy of someone different from you. We have unwittingly allowed ourselves to create a culture that works against humility and empathy—telling us that no one is more important than Glorious Us, and that our needs, our fears, our desires, and our opinions, are all that matter. And little by little, we’ve defined that “us” down, from humanity to race, from race to country, from country to region, from region to family, from family to individual. We live in 300 million Republics of Me—and the president (and sole resident) of every republic is 100% right, 100% of the time.
How do we break down the walls and re-establish some kind of common space for rational argument and discussion? How do we stop bullying each other with shouted opinions and start listening to each other instead? I think the first step is DOUBT. Science and rationality all start with doubt—with the question, “what if I’m wrong?” We don’t ask in order to give up; we ask in order to find out.
We have to start doubting ourselves and our allies, even if only for a moment. We should doubt ourselves to verify and reinforce ourselves. Doubt ourselves so that we can come back from doubt even stronger. Instead of saying “I know it’s true because it feels right,” let’s put in ourselves in a place where we can say, “I know it’s true because I checked.”
I’ve tried to think of a few steps we can share with students, children, and friends—or to use, ourselves, when we’re not sure what stories to trust. It’s not comprehensive or all-inclusive, by any means. But maybe it gives people a place to start.
Questions to Ask When We Read News on the Web
· Should I trust the author?
o What do I know about the author? What else have they written?
§ RED FLAG: If the author’s other work reveals a bias or agenda (always writing about the same topic; always taking the same position), find a second author who supports what this author is saying…even if you’re in agreement with that bias.
· Should I trust the publisher?
§ RED FLAG: If the website seems to have a bias or agenda, find a second publication that supports the article’s main positions…even if you’re in agreement.
· Should I trust the argument?
o Are there links to supporting resources in the article—or in a bibliography at the end?
§ If so, what websites do those links lead to? Are those sites connected to or allied with the site publishing the first article?
· RED FLAG: If the author is only citing friends or colleagues, search elsewhere for supporting information.
· RED FLAG: If the article cites experts but doesn’t link to their work, look up the experts and find out who they are and what biases or agendas they might have, and where they have been published.
· Am I being played?
o Is the author laying out a rational argument, or am I being manipulated and coerced?
§ RED FLAGS: Be on the lookout for these logical fallacies (and check the link for many more!). Authors who rely on techniques like these are trying to keep you from thinking rationally and clearly about the facts and their meaning.
· Ad hominem—a personal slur or attack on the opponent, unrelated to the topic.
· Slippery Slope—assuming the most extreme result and attacking that instead of the more probably result
· Bandwagon—appealing to a position’s popularity and the power of the group-mind.
· Straw Man—misrepresenting an opponent’s argument and then attacking that instead of the actual argument.
· Tu Quoque—avoiding criticism by turning it around on the accuser and saying “You, too.”
· Who else is talking about it?
o Is the story bouncing around the “echo chamber,” or is it being written about and discussed across a wide spectrum of sources and opinions?
· RED FLAG: If everyone is talking about a story, but they’re all using the same source for their information…approach with caution.
· RED FLAG: If the story is only being told “in-house,” within a partisan echo chamber, be cautious. There may be a good reason no one else is talking about it.