Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Tips for the truce

Over at Purple Wisconsin, Alex Runner invokes the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 as a way to think - just a little - about our political wars. If combatants in one of the most brutal and perplexing wars in human history could manage to treat each other as human beings, why can't we?

I've endorsed the sentiment on a number of occasions, what strikes me as more difficult is describing how we might go about a kinder and gentler debate.  While our political differences are not as stark as they might seem to be, they do matter.  And I understand that, while 30 years as a lawyer have taught me how to go out for a drink with someone I've fought with all day (it's in the game), others are not as acclimated to staying between the white lines as lawyers are trained to be.

But here are a few ideas.

If you think that your political opponent is evil, you are probably wrong. Most liberals are not fanatical communists or amoral libertines. Most conservatives are not heartless and greedy or censorious  prudes. People differ in the priority that they place on often competing, but commonly shared, values - say liberty v. equality - and in their judgments on the way that the world works and what must be done to serve those values. Beware of responding to a cartoon that you have created, as opposed to real people and the arguments that they make.

If you think that your political opponent is corrupt, you are probably wrong. Here's how I know. Most on the left believe that wealthy conservative donors are out for the main chance; motivated solely by the desire to keep what they have and get more. In fact, most of these people are well beyond personal concern about what American politics can do to them.  What motivates them is a sincere belief that certain policies will harm, while others will help, their country. I'll assume - until I'm shown otherwise - that the other side is similarly sincere.

Resist the desire to destroy your political opponent.  One of the most treacherous developments in our politics is the irresponsibility with which certain people have attempted to criminalize political differences. (Yes, I am talking about the John Doe, but conservatives are not without sin here.)  Another is to place the most uncharitable - and often unreasonable - interpretation on something that a person is said in order to label them as "racist," "homophobic," "un-American" or "pro-criminal."  Most of us are none of these things. Cut it out.

Acknowledge when the other side has a point.  The left, in my view, overstates income inequality and does not have a strong set of ideas to address the inequality that does exist. But concern for middle class progress and for the poor is not "anti-conservative" or even incompatible with free markets and economic liberty. But addressing how this can be so requires acknowledging the problem to be addressed.  Liberals who assume away the difficulty in presuming that government actors are somehow more virtuous or prescient than private persons acting in markets have essentially skipped the debate.

Understand why these things are hard. Two reasons. We are all subject to confirmation bias. I am far more likely to see the flaws in the other side's arguments and assume the worse about my opponent's motivation. I can't prevent that but I can minimize.  More fundamentally, political enmity and aggressiveness are phenomena that feed on themselves. If my opponent treats our fight as no holds barred, I can hardly abide by the Marquis of Queensbury rules.  If you do unto others, others will have no choice but to do unto you.

Take things in stride.  Even a kinder and gentler argument is an argument. People will take positions and say things that may make you want to take offense. Try not to. If you want to add a little zest now and then, accept it from the other side. As I say, it's in the game.

Be realistic.  I don't expect to dislike lawyers on the other side or carry our battles outside the litigation. But I do expect to have a battle. Just as clients really have opposing interests, our political battles reflect real differences of opinion about things that matter and cannot be dismissed as mere "partisanship." Respect does not imply agreement. It is simply not the case that, if we put "politics" aside, we'll magically agree on things.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.

4 comments:

George Mitchell said...

"Another is to place the most uncharitable - and often unreasonable - interpretation on something that a person is said in order to label them as "racist," "homophobic," "un-American" or "pro-criminal."


Or fascist, right, professor? Feeling guilty, I surmise.

Listen, that's absolutely wonderful that you chose to post what amounts to be a New Year's Resolution. Will you and others on each side of the political spectrum (myself included) refrain from temerity?

Actions speak louder than words, since you have the podium and bullhorn.

John Foust said...

Beware of responding to a cartoon that you have created... place the most uncharitable - and often unreasonable - interpretation... Yet somehow you manage to write title blog posts like "Does the Milwaukee Common Council Hate the First Amendment?"

The left, in my view, overstates income inequality... It what way? You think all those poor folk have offshore accounts where they're hiding their assets?

Marquis of Queensbury rules... Well, the golden rule in Matthew is "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them," or "treat others as you'd like to be treated." Full stop. It's not "treat others as you think you're being treated" as you say you'll do. That sort of "get even" is known as the "brass rule." See Romans 12.

Wealthy conservative donors are [...] are well beyond personal concern about what American politics can do to them. What motivates them is a sincere belief... I could almost picture your hands in a praying position as you said that. Can I continue for you? "It is almost unimaginable that the ultra-wealthy (even if we generously assume there is such a group, supra) would use their money, influence, or facile political access to shape the laws to benefit themselves." Am I doing it right? If I can keep this up, can I get a grant from some ultra-wealthy conservative donors, too? I can pump this stuff out by the pound.

"racist," "homophobic," "un-American" or "pro-criminal." Most of us are none of these things. If there are a few racist or homophobic conservatives out there, we can rely on you to identify them?

Here's another blog post idea: You could turn these recommendations into a sort of bingo card, and we could use it to turn the Journal's opinion page into a form of entertainment. I think the flaw in my idea, though, is that whoever started reading Christian Schneider's weekly piece would win the bingo game right away.

George Mitchell said...

It would appear that the gloves have come off. The truce lasted barely a month. At least the professor tried (golf clap).

George Mitchell said...

It would appear that the gloves have come off. The truce lasted barely a month. At least the professor tried (golf clap).