When I started college my English 101 professor taught us about using a formal writing voice in our writing. She explained that a good writer never uses phrases like “I think “or “I believe” because these create doubt with the reader. Our goal was to convey authority or more precisely, academic authority as an expert voice on a given subject. I wrote in this style throughout my undergrad years and still use this approach in my professional life. Years later I discovered chatboards and then blogging. If I was discussing a topic I felt certain about, perhaps in a history forum, I would use the authoritative voice. When debating policy matters, where I was far from an expert, I learned the internet encouraged the informal voice. Acronyms like IMO (in my opinion) were okay. You could say “I think…” and no one would fault you for it. To the contrary, in many ways this was the fastest way to make friends because you became approachable. You were saying, ‘I don’t have it all figured out, but this is what I believe today.” It became liberating in a way because I had permission to admit my own uncertainty.
Far from giving someone permission to be uncertain, political litmus tests are designed to force our leaders to take positions on policy. Astute voters understand that our entire election process is designed to get politicians on the record. We want to know what they believe so we can decide if they will have our support. Beyond these basic platform questions, litmus tests also take the form of political traps. The sexual assault allegations against Judge Kavanaugh fall under this category. It seems clear that this isn’t actually about justice for his alleged victims or a litmus test for Kavanaugh. To the contrary, this is a test for the party that nominated him. We all know Professor Ford’s testimony later this week is unlikely to actually derail a confirmation vote, but it does set up a litmus test for Republicans. Frankly, I am too cynical to believe that the same Democratic senators who would have happily welcomed the Clintons back to the White House actually care about what may have happened to Ford, but if she gives a compelling testimony and Kavanaugh is still confirmed, then Republicans have failed the test and Democrats can beat that drum this November.
I have no doubt that some readers will interpret my take on the Democrats’ strategy as a type of victim shaming or siding with Republicans. As a moderate that prefers a swing vote on the court, that would be a poor interpretation of my intentions, but it’s also important to note that before Ford has actually said a word in public, support for Kavanaugh is already falling. In the battle of proxies, Republicans are losing. What this has really led me to is a consideration of how we interact with each other in places like this. From the National Review:
Most Americans hold either liberal or conservative positions on most matters. In many instances, however, they would be hard pressed to explain their position or the position they oppose.
But if you can’t explain both sides, how do you know you’re right?
At the very least, you need to understand both the liberal and conservative positions in order to effectively understand your own.
I won’t pretend to always understand both sides of an issue, but I see value in the effort,. Lately, the best opportunity I have to practice this is when discussing my daughter’s veganism. She is the child of a lifelong hunter who is also an unapologetic meat eater but in the last couple of years she has taken a different path. I have learned that making an effort to understand her position to the point where I can explain it to someone else creates a lot of empathy on my end. While I don’t see myself giving up meat anytime soon, being open-minded about her opinions also means I get to talk to my daughter about food (one of my favorite subjects) instead of us arguing or worse, avoiding the topic altogether.
These days, my least favorite word to hear in online discussions is ‘trolling’. Too often, when someone claims one side is trying to derail a conversation, what they actually mean is that they can’t comprehend how someone could arrive at that opinion from a honest place, so they must be trying to provoke (and I continue to be amazed at just how many intelligent people are so easily provoked). In the opening paragraph I talked about how I was taught to use a formal tone to invoke academic authority in my professional writing. Academic authority has sparked thousands of debates among scholars over the years, some incredibly vicious. Taken a step farther, what I see much of today is far too many people claiming moral authority. On this site we talk a lot about ‘assuming good faith’ on the part of your opponents but it’s hard to allow that grace when you have already claimed the moral high ground.
It’s easy to feel like there can be no other side to a debate. We believe the facts demonstrate Right and we feel compelled to stake out that position. Writing an essay or leaving a comment which stacks a large deck of facts in favor of one opinion and then daring others to contradict, accomplishes only one thing: It tells us who we can group into the categories of Right or Wrong. Those carefully-crafted traps may make us feel very clever for exposing the moral decay of the other side, but not are very interesting if we still believe that democracy is founded on vigorous debate.
There is nothing new under the sun for the essayist. Plenty of ink has been spilled on any given issue long before we write our next post, so the only variable is us. The way we interact with each other, the way we bring our own unique perspective to the conversation, the interplay of ideas…that is interesting. When we create traps for one another, we stifle debate and worse, we feel justified in telling ourselves that we are not just Right, but that we are the better person. I’m sure some enjoy the victory in those moments, but the community is not any better for it. It would be far more interesting if rather than test each other, we spent more time exploring issues where we admit we are uncertain ourselves. What a risk it would be to actually admit that we don’t know the right answer, and how satisfying might it be to arrive at a conclusion together. All it takes is making an honest effort to understand the other side.