Another Sign of the Lack of Civil Discourse in America

One of the things that has been nagging at me is the increasing difficulty of having meaningful discussions about important topics with anything other than like-minded people. Americans increasingly treat their views, be they on Iraq, global warming, civil liberties, or other Big Topics of the Day, as articles of faith rather than positions they are arrived at with some thought and study. So if you differ with their beliefs, instead of getting a reasoned response, or a polite, “let’s agree to disagree,” one instead is too often met with anger, which is often a sign that they can’t defend their views logically. As I’ve noted before, this make it well-nigh impossible to have policy discussions across political lines, find common ground, and reach compromises.

This may seem a trivial example, but what struck me was that the venom seemed entirely out of proportion to the trigger. From Elizabeth Warren at Credit Slips:

Last Tuesday I published an Op-Ed in the Boston Globe about mortgage companies that pay brokers to sell higher priced mortgages to customers. (E.g., a customer qualifies for a 6% mortgage, but the mortgage company pays the broker a higher fee to sell him a 7% mortgage.) I called the payments “bribes” paid by the mortgage companies to the brokers to boost mutual profits at the expense of the homeowner. I was in good company. The Vice-President of the Fannie Mae Foundation called them “kickbacks.” After the op-ed was published, I was flooded with hate mail. It was so bad that when there was no let up by the end of the third day, I thought I might have to change my email address.

Some of it was funny (“your stupid”), weird (“I thank God my son went to BU instead of Harvard”), or silly (“you must be a Communist”). But most of the correspondence fell into three main buckets:

This never happens; you are making this up
This happens sometimes, but it is a few-bad-apples problem
We all do this; it’s how we make money…

If you think the practice doesn’t happen, look at a rate sheet and explanation.

What I find particularly disturbing about the all the vitriol is that what Warren was describing is something that can be verified factually. This isn’t a matter of interpretation on her part. Either lenders provide incentives to brokers or not, either they do it in significant amounts or not. It’s fair to challenge someone’s data, but to demonize them because the findings just because they don’t sound right to you is nutty. And there appears to be a lot of nuts out there. Scary.

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  1. Anonymous

    I sympathize with you. Stay true. I have sensed a very real charge to the air here. My own father, an otherwise intelligent man, is like what you describe. Continue to challenge the blowhards with facts. And don’t lose faith that reason will prevail. I look for little signs of a return. For instance, Senator Jim Webb announced his disappointment with Republican Senator John Warner for opposing at the last minute legislation that would impose troop rotation relief. It must have been tempting but Mr. Webbrefrained from saying Warner was unpatriotic, wasn’t supporting the troops etc– all the vitriol and ugliness that’s all too common especially with the right in this country.

  2. Anonymous

    Isn’ this – demonizing the differing view – exactly the strategy of Bush camp all through the presidency? Seems to be a contagious disease. And its origins lie with religious extremists. If you believe in something nutty and have no facts to defend your point, you can always smear your opponent and hope that others follow. Seems to have worked well so far. Frustratingly, this strategy pretty much kills all sensible discussion, as Yves points out. And motivates othe parties to adopt the same strategy. So all parties end up looking like idiots.

  3. Lee A. Arnold

    Probably not real fools. Doubtless there are Nutty True Believers on all subjects under the sun, and more and more of them are going to find your venue… But on the web you are also going to see a lot more public-relations management by vested interests, both public and private. There will be “nutty” and more-nuanced comments, and they will be carefully written and posted entirely by hired p.r. help. The idea is to make it seem like there is a groundswell of opinion, or serious doubt, or perhaps even academic disproof, of various ideas. We saw an onslaught of these comments before the last election, including what appeared to be copying and pasting directly from crib sheets. This is is starting to become continuous, and you may depend upon it. Read the highly-evolved nonsense in comments made by global warming deniers on the well-read and creditable science blogs. In a democracy, things are finally decided by people in a polling booth, and there is lots of money around, so management of public opinion is primary.

  4. Anonymous

    Kinda what it feels like to be called insane for questioning whether 47 story steel framed buildings should collapse for no apparent reason. They shouldn’t. Just don’t talk about it.

  5. Anonymous

    Engineering consent…It’s not that new, though the tools keep changing. The Macchiavellian methods are still in use, but there’s a nice arsenal of newer ways to distort people’s perception of reality. Adam Curtis has made some amazing documentaries about manipulation of public opinion for BBC (Manufacturing consent was a term he used, i think). Chilling to watch. Can be found on youtube.

    At the the core, though, lies the choice and decision of each individual to believe the pleasant lie rather than the nasty truth. Every single step on this road will make the truth more and more repulsive and ugly, and the lie more and more necessary and beautiful. And the need to recruit more believers for the lie grows, because it holds all the beauty and everybody needs it. Denying the ugly truth makes it only more ugly. But truth has the funny feature of happening regardless of what people want and hope. So watching the world scene unfold and seeing the inane commentary/liturgy spread over it…Nazi Germany was an interesting hothouse experiment of the power of lies. The public was happy, everything was swell and if anyone suffered, it was their own fault. But reality caught them, much sooner than they, or anyone, expected. Reality always will. A thoroghly interesting topic. Seems to be one of the questions the Matrix film asks: Will you choose to eat beef in virtual reality or gruel in reality?

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