Wednesday, September 16, 2009

An Arms-Control Treaty For Political Discourse

All the breast-beating about Joe Wilson at Obama's address and Serena Williams at the US Open and Kanye West at the VMAs has predictably been bemoaning how much the fabric of civility in the US has frayed. All true, but not very useful.

The fact is that incivility works. It gets your point distinguished and remembered much more than civil discourse does. The sad fact is that Joe Wilson's little outburst caused language to be inserted into the various health care bills that he couldn't have gotten in in his wildest dreams, had he not heckled the President of the United States with, "You lie!"

It occurred to me that this tsunami of incivility is a lot like a military arms race. Nations build more and better weapons for two reasons. They either hope to get a decisive advantage over their opponent, to cause the opponent to concede something, or they hope to maintain parity with an opponent, deterring him from action.

Arms races can only end in one of three ways:
  • One side can achieve dominance and bend the other side to its wishes.

  • A war finally breaks out, at great cost to both sides. Whether or not the war has a winner will vary from case to case.

  • Both sides can agree to de-escalate, usually through some sort of a treaty.

Seems to me that exactly the same three outcomes are possible in our political discourse. Either the right or the left might ultimately prevail, possibly in part from their ideas but more likely in large degree because they were more willing or more able to be more vicious and underhanded than their opponent. Or maybe things will continue to get worse to the point where our democracy simply stops functioning and we collapse into something a lot like real warfare. Whether either side wins such a war is secondary to the fact that the US won't be a very good place to live for a long time after such a collapse.

Or, we find a way to de-escalate. We come to some social consensus that declares that use of the worst verbal weapons, while they may produce some short-term advantage, will ultimately so damage both sides that their use simply can't be tolerated.

Negotiating such a social consensus is hard. Both sides have to agree to give up genuinely useful rhetorical tools. But arms-control treaties are hard, too, and yet they occasionally work.

I have no idea how one would begin such a negotiation. An obvious problem is that there isn't exactly a "leader of the right" and a "leader of the left" to participate in the negotiations and, even if there were, I'm not sure they could cat-herd their various constituencies into abiding by the agreement. At the very least, there'd be a huge amount of finger-pointing over various violations. But I have to say that the finger-pointing would be vastly preferable to the overflowing sewer that we have today.

This is probably an unworkable utopian idea. If anybody has any thoughts, let me know.

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