Monday, September 29, 2008

How to Be a Responsible Voter (From Donovan's Perspective)

A friend asked mine recently asked where I go to find good or objective news sources. Although I was excited to hear someone interested in discussing politics and exploring new points of view, my response wasn't as automatic as I had expected. What I've come to conclude is that my best estimation of "objective" most often simply aligns with my own beliefs. What I really do to keep myself in check is to listen to what both sides have to say for themselves and then dialogue with others whose opinions differ from my own. Reading books and second- or third-party sources rarely does as much to develop my beliefs as it does to reinforce them unless I'm actively engaging with actual people. It keeps conversations more honest because I'm not going to call someone an idiot to his or her face like I would say to an author or presenter. Political views are more rooted in our experiences and feelings anyway... so the personal touch helps us get more to the point.

My take is that if I can't look someone in the eye and appreciate him or her for their person, then there's no point in discussing serious issues with them. Likewise, if someone approaches me as an opponent more than as a person, I try to cut off serious conversations before they begin. Opinions and arguments are not about the ideas themselves; they are about the people involved. Like Buechner has said, "Theology is biographical." Same goes for politics. An interesting thing I learned from studying mediation is that volatile topics lose much of their explosiveness if you begin sharing personal stories before any mention of opinions. Those stories and emotions are the real context of our deeply held beliefs - not our take on logic or fact. (Check out the Public Conversations Project for some practical resources in this area.)

Of course, we need to be informed and critical of ideas. I can't possibly become informed on even local civil and political issues without finding audio and printed news sources. I prefer to read books that display some measure of discipline and fair-handedness. Most political media provides neither of these traits. The problem with political media (especially talk radio) is that it has no interest in truth; rather, its goal is often to 'rally up the troops' - people who are in agreement enough with the author to overlook the many factual and logical errors in the arguments. Some proponents may have good intentions, sure, but it's not difficult for any of us to drift to unreasonable extremes when emotion and bias are allowed to take the reins. Keeping company with those who reinforce one particular way of thinking and acting compounds this risk. Extreme views and actions can be seductive, but keeping yourself from getting immersed in those circles/programs helps to balance us out with other perspectives and hopefully to keep our identities grounded in something other than our political or ideological affiliation.

Each of us must be careful to take notice of some fallacies commonly used in persuasive media. The first is the use of categorical statements that generalize and mischaracterize other views. Be careful when someone claims to speak for others' opinions and intentions, or when one person or statement are taken to represent a whole. Such misleading statements are also often accompanied by nicknames and name-calling that further demeans and dehumanizes one's opponents. When someone has reached the point of personal attacks or bitter name-calling, he or she is either not interested in truth or is too worked up to tell the difference. Another thing to be careful of is the abuse of pathos (appeal to emotions) in arguments. Oftentimes this takes the form of playing to others' fears or to their anger (which is often based in fear).

Being informed about the issues themselves has helped me more than reading other peoples' opinions about leaders. I prefer to watch candidates' speeches and interviews and decide for myself based on my understanding of the issues. It might take more investment to do things this way, but there's really no alternative if I want to be informed. People commenting on the candidates themselves are often campaign spokespersons or someone with little expertise in the topic of discussion.

Some of the independent sources tend to be more vigilant and less subject to the corporate games than the main news sources. I'll watch Democracy Now! to see what some of the left-minded people are concerned about. They catch issues like the Jena Six, the expansion and U.S. deployment of Blackwater and the mishandling of crowd control in St. Paul way before it catches others' attention. On the right side, I'll go to something like Newsmax. My personal taste is for diverse and slightly left-leaning programming like NPR. Podcasts like To The Point and (to a lesser degree) Left, Right and Center are also helpful because they provide a venue for qualified and differing opinions to interact directly in a moderated discussion. It's nice to hear people talk about their opinions when they're addressing one particular issue with which they have sincere interest and experience. Most everyone else is just manipulating what little they've found to bolster their views regarding a specific candidate or concern.

What I ask isn't that everyone become an expert or news junky, just for each of us to put in the effort to be informed, think critically and engage opposing viewpoints. If you think that something is objective or fair-minded, the truth is most likely that it simply lines up with your current beliefs. Listen to the people and ideas that make you uncomfortable! You don't need to be an "expert" to investigate first-hand sources yourself or to criticize someone's work. Being "right" isn't going to make our democracy work; the driving force of a working democracy is an informed, critically thinking and active populace. This means refusing to settle for the consumption of ideas, products or roles... no matter what side they represent.