Thursday, September 10, 2009

On Lies and Liars …

Last night, as I watched the president’s speech on healthcare before a joint gathering of Congress, I was struck by the muted partisanship and rancor coming from both sides of the aisle.

Don’t get me wrong, I find it endemic of our national character that so many members of our leadership will launch invective through media coverage and public events and then act so reserved in a personal confrontation with their opposition. Nor am I suggesting that I favor this behavior. I see it as false statesmanship, a show for masses that does not accurately reflect our leaders’ character, their motives, nor even their “class” (whatever that is).

Which brings me to the outburst by South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson.

For those that missed it, when President Obama refuted the claim that the healthcare reform would provide coverage to illegal immigrants, Wilson shouted from his seat, “YOU LIE!

It was a startling moment. I, like many listeners, was taken aback by that exchange.

Not because of the “breach of decorum” so widely derided by so many this morning. Frankly, I think our democracy is a bit too controlled, with certain speakers being allowed access to the public sphere at certain times. In my opinion, much goes unsaid in our public space, which is one of the reasons I think the pseudo-public space (cable news, talk radio, email chain letters, etc.) are so partisan and nasty.

No, I found the moment interesting for a framing and content reason.

By choosing (or not choosing, the Congressman says this morning he simply was caught up in the moment) to shout “YOU LIE!” instead of “THAT’S WRONG!” or “I DISAGREE!,” the Congressman displays precisely why this discourse surrounding the healthcare debate has been so divisive.

When one frames disagreement in terms of a moral claim about another person, rather than on the arguments themselves, it appears to display a closed approach to said discourse. In other words, there’s not much room for the consideration of the other’s views, much less compromise.

I remember hearing an NPR segment a few months back between a representative of the NRA and a representative from the ACLU. They had been invited to discuss the lapse and proposed reinstatement of the federal assault weapons ban.

As the segment drew on, I was struck by how many times the NRA spokesman said “That’s a lie” and how many times the ACLU spokesman said “That’s simply not true.”

Not that progressives have the monopoly on the high ground nor the conservatives on the low ground. I’ve heard plenty from each side stoop low to claim “lies” (who can forget “Bush lied and people died!”?), and members of both sides frame their remarks in terms of factual disputes and disagreements over evidence.

I do wish, just once, someone in President Obama’s position (or even former President Bush's position) would take an opportunity like the occurrence last night to say, “Excuse me, sir! As I implore my progressive friends and my conservative friends to come together, let me offer you a suggestion about your choice in rhetoric. We may disagree on the evidence supporting your claim or mine. We may disagree about the intentions or likely policy outcomes of the plans under scrutiny. But you cannot claim to know what I know, what my intentions are, or that I am willfully disregarding what I do know in order to offer deceit. You simply don't know me well enough to make that claim. It is precisely this style of rhetoric that polarizes our policy debates and prevents compromise.”

I understand why President Obama could not make such a statement. Politically, it’s better to allow such a remark to pass unchallenged and put faith in the listener to discern the difference between the two approaches.

But I wonder if we’re putting too much faith in the casual listener?

I’ve heard so much discourse about “lies,” “liars,” and “deceit.” And precious little about the possibility of “misunderstanding,” “misinformed,” “disagreement,” etc.

And I fear by not allowing space in our discourse for misunderstandings, differing levels of information access, different ideological approaches to evidence or even simply errors in logic, we proclaim we know the person better than they themselves do, and limit our ability to understand precisely why it is we disagree with another.

In other words, we undermine our ability to interact, and reduce the strengths of a vibrant democracy (a marketplace of ideas in which differing positions interact to learn from one another) to a shallow shouting match where political muscle alone determines political outcomes.

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Anonymous Paul said...

Joe Wilson from South Carolina, is just another good old boy where in the morning these married men preach to you that there should be prayer in our schools and in the evening they are on their cell phones setting up a date with their other women on the side, hypocrisy has been bred in. I am not surprised that he felt compel to yell like he was at some Friday night game. He is a hater not a debater like most of his side of the isle.

11:32 AM  

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