The Modern Survival Guide #27
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone, and are totally up for debate. So long as you’ve got a well-thought-out counterargument, come at me bro. In this article I’ll be discussing national debates, why they’re important, and how to navigate them.
So you open your social media account one morning, and the headlines just explode out at you, right? There’s been another mass shooting! There’s been an outbreak of Ebola! Another celebrity endorsed the anti-vaccination movement! We’re going to war again! The Kardashians are still there! These things become national debates — topics of interest to so many people that you cannot avoid them.
Let’s face it, we have more access to information than ever, we each have a louder voice than we’ve ever had before, and the pervasive nature of media basically forces us to engage in national debates — even if that engagement consists of deliberately ignoring them. You’re either going to post something on social media about the gun debate, for example, or you’re going to have to scroll past all your friends’ posts on the gun debate… but either way you’ll be looking at the gun debate.
If you’re not on social media, of course, you just get the traditional bombardment of news, radio, internet ads, podcasts, and conversations. These are not as easy to dodge as just closing your Facebook window. The point is that you’re not getting away from the national debate topics. They will track you down. That’s kind of the point of calling something a “national” debate — it’s important enough that everyone is talking about it.
These things affect you. Generally speaking, if something is important enough that it kicks off a national debate, it’s important enough that it will impact your life — or the lives of your friends and family — somehow. The gun debate is a good example. Whether or not you can buy certain firearms is kind of a big deal. Even if you don’t want to buy an AR-15, having that option has repercussions on society. It affects your life by affecting your options and by affecting the events that happen around you.
And that’s just one example. There’s a new thing every week, it seems, especially in the Trump era where so many of our national norms are being challenged (and destroyed) on a weekly basis. As a citizen of a democracy, your voice matters, your opinion matters, and your actions matter. And as a person, these debates impact the kinds of things you see and do in everyday life. No matter what you do, you are contributing to the debate — even by not taking part. So navigating these debates is a pretty important skill.
My advice on this sort of thing is fairly simple: since you can’t get away, you probably need to understand the debate and then decide how much you want to engage with it. I think this boils down to four points:
- Educate yourself.
- Be as vocal as you are comfortable with.
- Explain yourself.
- Keep it polite.
Now, when I say “educate yourself,” I don’t mean that you should attend classes, take tests, and generally interrupt your life every time there’s a national debate. That’s not what this is about. This is about acquiring enough information about a subject that you can speak about it intelligently. And there’s an important concept that we need to address here before we go any further: the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
If you’ve never heard of this concept, that’s fine, I can summarize the part that concerns us: the less people know about a subject, the more likely they are to think they understand it. Kind of counter-intuitive, right? This is a phenomenon that works via cognitive biases and a lack of recognition of “unknown unknowns” — things that we don’t know we don’t know. In short, if you don’t know enough about a subject to know what you don’t know about a subject, you are more likely to think you know more than you do.
Whew. Got it? Good.
So — education is necessary to get out of the Dunning-Kruger trap. Ignorance is not your friend, it is not bliss, and it won’t help you. Getting educated is going to involve figuring out how much you know about a subject before forming opinions on it. This is going to require either reading or listening, and it takes some time. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we’re more or less surrounded by information sources — the average news channel has the intelligence gathering and synthesizing capabilities of a CIA team from yesteryear. And yet, there’s more bad news, because there’s a lot of fake news out there these days. The information age is just as good at spreading bad information as it is at spreading good information.¹
That means you have to find a reliable source of information. Here’s how you do that: look at a news provider’s articles and presentations. Compare and contrast them to the real world. See who is actually reporting news and who is actually reporting propaganda that looks like news.² If you don’t have time to do that yourself, there are groups out there who will do it for you — in particular websites like Snopes, FactCheck.org, and PolitiFact. You can use these resources to fairly quickly track down reporting patterns. This is an afternoon’s work, and it pays dividends for years.
Once you have your list of (relatively) trusted websites and news sources, you can actually start getting educated on what you know and don’t know. The way you do that is to find experts and get their opinion, then compare and contrast it to your own. If you hold a radically different opinion from an expert on a subject that you have not personally spent several years studying, you are probably wrong. Sorry about that. It’s a hard thing to accept. But this is one of those situations where humility is a major virtue.³
Now you know what you don’t know, and you can start filling in those gaps. Honestly, I’m making this sound like a big thing, but most serious news outlets will do this for you in an hour’s worth of investigative reporting stories and podcasts.
Here’s a quick test: ask yourself why an issue is happening after you listen to a news report. See how many “why”s you can string together into a chain of causal events. If you can go more than three or four “why”s back in the chain before your explanations start to sound like “Because that’s how that group of people behaves,” or “Because that’s how things are,” congratulations — you are probably educated enough to have an opinion.
That doesn’t mean you aren’t wrong. But it’s a start.
Speaking Out in a Debate
Once you are better educated on an issue, it’s up to you how much you want to engage. I should note at this point that the education process itself is inherently useful — you’re a citizen of a democracy, and the more you know the better off you’ll be. But having knowledge and using knowledge are two different things.
Speaking out and engaging in a national debate is a good way to use that knowledge. By making your opinion known in a national debate, you are fulfilling a civic need (being an awake, aware, and involved citizen) and even possibly helping to educate others. That being said, being vocal isn’t a mandatory requirement, and it’s certainly not a requirement all the time. Engaging in a national debate is a time-consuming and stressful activity that should be balanced against more immediate obligations (work, family/relationship time, sleep, etc.).
If you come up with a positive balance, however, I encourage you to make your voice heard. Post things on social media. Talk to people who seem interested. Contact your representatives. This is how changes get made on the national scale: enough people, over enough time, change enough viewpoints that reality shifts a bit. I think it’s important that you be as vocal as you as you can be — otherwise you kind of lose the right to complain when things don’t go your way. Which leads to the next point…
Explaining Your Viewpoint
Being a vocal part of a national debate means that you, by definition, have a viewpoint. One of the key elements of a debate, though, is also being able to explain your viewpoint. This is hard, because language is imprecise and communication is an art form in and of itself. But it’s a learned skill, and you can learn it.
A good start is to learn to condense your thoughts into statements. A business metaphor is handy here: the Elevator Speech. Basically, pretend you have thirty seconds to explain a concept (i.e. the amount of time you’re stuck in an elevator with someone). You need to distill whatever information you want to convey down into a sound bite, refine it until it makes sense, and ensure that this summary statement is what you lead with.
Your elevator speech should at least convey the following:
- What the issue is — if people don’t know what you’re talking about, your opinion really doesn’t matter.
- What your view is — this should be said in as few words as possible, but still convey the core of the idea.
- Why it’s important — if people don’t know why something matters to them, they probably won’t care about it.
That’s what you use to get people’s attention. Once you have started a dialogue with someone, then you can break out the longer explanations. This longer explanation should contain most of your logic, evidence, supporting concepts, whatever you need to make your point.
Still, pay attention to the TLDR (Too Long, Didn’t Read) problem. I’ve found on Medium that a 4 minute article is about the best I can get away with before people stop reading. It’s sad that this is the modern attention span, but there you go. Keep it as short and sweet as possible. Remember that a national debate is a dialogue; you’ll probably have another opportunity to make more points later.
Keeping it Polite
Last and by no means least, keep your discussions polite. Calling someone a libtard or a racist is usually not helpful. Cursing at people is even less helpful. This is an easy way to alienate people on the other side and get your viewpoint immediately discounted.
If you don’t want to talk to someone, just don’t talk to them. But if you are engaging with someone on the opposite side of whatever issue you’re debating, it’s worthwhile to state up front that you’re going to try to be polite and considerate. That sets the tone of the debate and can inspire people on the other side to moderate their reactions too.
Remember, the core point of a national debate is that it’s about something the nation is debating. A nation is not just liberals or conservatives; a nation is everyone. A national debate isn’t just about individuals yelling at each other; it’s about citizens attempting to resolve a pervasive issue. Citizens should not be each other’s enemies; at worst, they should be each other’s loyal opponents.
If you want to make enemies, by all means call someone a cuck libtard or a fascist deplorable. But if you want to be a citizen, stay away from this kind of incendiary stuff.
National debates aren’t going away any time soon; if anything, they’re getting more pervasive and more heated as technology brings more and more viewpoints into the public sphere. With that in mind, there’s one final point that needs to be made:
It’s OK to take a break.
Part of the point of politics, as I mentioned in MSG #9, is that political issues are immortal and recursive. If you missed the abortion debate this year, never fear: it’ll plop right back on the schedule soon enough. You don’t have to fight every battle, you don’t have to stress over every debate, and (usually) these issues are not sufficiently immediate to warrant an all-out drop-everything-and-do-this emergency reaction.
That being said, sometimes they are.
So, my advice is to stay educated, stay awake, stay informed, and stay engaged as much as you can. You’re not going to get away from national debates, but you can and should manage how you get involved in them.
¹Please be aware that “fake news” means “stories that aren’t real,” not “news I dislike.”
²I don’t care what your Baby Boomer relatives think, the FOX News channel is a propaganda outlet. If you want news with a conservative bent, read the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, or the New York Post. At least they have some ethical standards. And I don’t care what your hipster friend thinks, MSNBC is the same thing from the other side. The Washington Post, New York Times, and NPR are better sources.
³I’ve noticed a lot of non-scientists giving their earnest opinion on global warming, for example. There’s also a pernicious campaign against expert opinions in the country currently, because it is very much in the interests of certain groups to keep you stupid. So no, scientists do not get rich off of grant money, tenure is not all it’s cracked up to be, and if someone dedicates years of their life to a topic it usually means that they think understanding that topic is more interesting than doing anything else — not that they have spent years biding their time for their chance to take part in a conspiracy to undermine the country.