I live in Provo. Most of my neighbors and ward members and friends are Republicans and voted for Mitt Romney for President. I’m a Mormon; most Mormons did too. My Dad watches Fox News, a lot, all the time, and enjoys it; his own politics are pretty Tea Party. My Mom doesn’t like to talk politics, but votes with him. One of my brothers is involved in local politics in Arizona, and is very moderate in his views, but he’s a businessman and voted for Romney, though he does work closely with Democrats. My other brother and I haven’t really talked politics much–we mostly talk theatre, a far more agreeable subject. I taught at BYU, which would suggest that my students were mostly conservatives, but I taught in the Theatre program, which means at least some of my colleagues were liberals. Still, when I think of the people I mostly hang out with, I would say at least 80 percent do not share my political views. When talking politics, or when blogging about politics, it’s very much in my best interest to talk civilly, respectfully. That’s mostly my inclination anyway. And since the alternative would seem to be not having any friends. . . .
As I have said repeatedly, I thought this past election was between two honorable, intelligent men who happened to disagree on political issues. I thought that was a good thing, because both sides had other viable candidates who, it turned out, were not particularly good people–at least if we define ‘a good person’ as ‘someone who doesn’t cheat on his wife when she’s dying of cancer.’ Take a bow, Newt Gingrich and John Edwards! Instead, we had Obama v. Romney, a far more encouraging choice.
I know that when I chat with my Dad and my brother, I am talking to good men, men I love and respect, but also men with whom I disagree. My Dad and I do get into it sometimes, and my Mom hates it when that happens, but we get along really well. It’s perfectly possible to remain friends with people who hold political views with which you disagree. I try to go out of my way not to demonize political opponents. I try to. Don’t always succeed.
So in discussing politics with people I love but who I disagree with, I try to keep it focused on the issues, and on evidence. I know I’m talking to intelligent, reasonable people, I respect them, and I want them to continue to respect me when we’re through. One thing that helps is to genuinely try to figure out their position; what is it they’re saying, why are they saying it? In the last election, for example, my Dad and my brother both thought the highest national priority economically should be balancing the budget. I thought it should be job growth. So we disagreed, not so much on policy but on policy priorities. And our conversations were very interesting.
So what do you do when people believe in ideas that are just flat crazy?
‘Cause here’s the thing; one of the things I love about American politics is how funny it gets sometimes. As I’ve also said, since these bozos don’t seem interested in governing, the least they can do is amuse us. And amuse us they do. I loved the story about the woman who won a seat in the state legislature in Maine despite being a level 53 Orc on World of Warcraft. Love that.
I do watch MSNBC; I like Rachel Maddow’s show. I do read Salon; I like Joan Walsh and Robert Reich and especially Steve Kornacki. I do watch some Fox News, I do check out some conservative blogs, just to get the conservative perspective, and I read the Deseret News every day of my life. Not the more liberal Salt Lake Tribune; I want to know what my neighbors are thinking. But the one show I never miss is The Daily Show. I watch Stephen Colbert religiously. Because they bring the funny.
And because the reasonable, civil, respectful me is often at odds with the gleefully mean-spirited me.
So how do we balance the two? How do we remain respectful of views we disagree with, while reserving the right to mock views that are completely ridiculous? How do we distinguish between them?
It’s harder than it seems. I don’t think of myself as a partisan ideologue, but I do tend to favor one camp over the other, and I do read a lot. I’m perfectly comfortable questioning liberal orthodoxy when I think it’s wrong, but when I do think a particular idea is wrong, it’s based on careful research; I have thought it through. So for example, Mitt Romney’s economic program. Vague and undefined as it was, he did favor certain economic principles, and ones I disagree with. So it’s easy for me to say ‘those plans are nuts.’ But I have to admit in all humility that I might be wrong. Lots of economists weighed in during the last election, and both sides had economists they were fond of. I have to avoid the arrogance of saying ‘you’re an idiot, because I’m right, because I’m smarter than you are.’ An argument from authority is rhetorically the weakest argument you can make. Listen respectfully, cite your own evidence, finally agree to disagree.
On the other hand, conspiracy theories, right or left, are fair game. Birthers and truthers are both supremely mock-worthy. President Obama really was born in Hawaii, and President Bush really didn’t plant bombs in the Twin Towers. Neil Armstrong really did walk on the moon, and Shakespeare’s plays really were written by William Shakespeare, of Stratford-upon-Avon. Tinfoil hats are not the unique headgear for conservatives alone, or liberals alone. Both sides have seriously wacky people on their side. I know people still convinced that the voting machines used in the 2000 election were rigged to create false positives for Bush, and that’s why he won.
Because liberals and Democrats won, the last election’s ripest conspiracy theories tended to be harvested on the Right. Like Benghazi, which really was just an intelligence failure, a confused response to a chaotic situation–not proof-positive that Obama is a murderer and terrorist. And also: the election was conducted fairly and Obama really did win on his own merits, not because Black Panthers intimidated voters. And while I think his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy probably did help, the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, or HAARP really is just a research project studying high atmosphere communications; it’s not a secret program Obama used to actually cause the hurricane, as some have suggested. (In my favorite version of the ‘HAARP caused Sandy’ meme, Obama had access to technology developed by Nicola Tesla. Stored, no doubt, in Warehouse 13.) Then there’s this. The short version, for those of you who don’t want to link, is that Obama used the Delphi technique, a mind control system developed by the Rand corporation, to win the election, so he can take away our property rights. He wants to crowd us all into cities, like Pol Pot in reverse.
We have to be careful, though. It’s neither responsible or accurate to point to the wackiest theories from the craziest conservatives to prove that all conservatives are wacky or crazy. They’re not. Pointing up crazy conspiracy theories is just sort of fun, to show how nutty we, as a species, can become. I do think that conservatives should probably take the lead in denouncing crazy conservative ideas–just tactically. And liberals should take the lead in denouncing the stupidest ideas on the Left. (And boy, do we have some doozies.) But I think it’s fun to find the craziest people in politics and gleefully make fun of their ideas.
And in this last election, at least two Senate races were decided when nutty candidates said nutty things that they seem to genuinely have believed were true: Missouri and Indiana. And I think it’s hilarious that the Republican contingent in the House Science committee seems mostly to consist of people who don’t believe in science. I think that’s awesome.
What I don’t know what to do with are ideas that I think are nutty, but which people I care about think are reasonable. Climate change is a great example. The evidence for serious, man-caused, possibly fixable climate change is, to me, indisputable. Tell that to my Dad. He’s sure it’s all just a big scam, scientists getting us all scared so we won’t cut off their funding. Those kinds of situations, you really do just have to agree to disagree.
But it’s not disrespectful to defend strongly held positions. It’s not disrespectful to say ‘this is what I believe and this is why I believe it.’ Just do so with some humility, with some respect, with some attempt at civility. And remember, not everyone thinks the same jokes are funny.